The use of Congressional redistricting for partisan advantage goes back at least as far as 1812, when the Massachusetts Legislature invented what has become known as the “gerrymander.” Last month’s election proved again that the gerrymander still roams the land.
The Constitution requires congressional districts be redrawn after each census so that the House of Representatives will truly be representative. All else being equal, if party affiliation played no part in how the lines were drawn, we should expect that, in the first election following redistricting, the percentage of votes cast for the two parties in House elections nationwide would be close to the percentage of representatives from each party elected.
But November’s vote, the first election after states redistricted in response to the 2010 Census, showed the power of the mapmakers. An Associated Press vote tally found that Democratic House candidates across the nation received more than 1 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans came out with a 243-201 seat House majority.
This is even more clear in individual states. In Pennsylvania, Republicans controlled the redistricting process and, while Democrats outnumbered Republican voters and carried the state for President Barack Obama, Republicans won 13 out of 18 House seats.
Republicans drew maps in Virginia as well, The New York Times reports, and, though Democratic House candidates drew nearly half the votes statewide, they won just 27 percent of the House seats.
Redistricting for partisan advantage, using ever-more-sophisticated computer software, is a bipartisan practice. Democratic-controlled legislatures in Illinois and Maryland are credited with helping Democrats fare better in House races than their statewide numbers would dictate.
The impact of partisan redistricting is seen even more clearly in a Times analysis comparing states where one party controlled the process to those where redistricting went through divided legislatures or was handled by independent commissions. Where Republicans controlled the process, Republicans earned 53 percent of the votes but won 72 percent of the races. Where Democrats controlled redistricting, Democrats won 56 percent of the votes, but 71 percent of the races.
But in states where an independent commission or divided state government did the redistricting, there was more alignment: Democrats won 56 percent of the votes and took 53 percent of the House seats.
The conclusion is obvious: If we want the House of Representatives to be truly representative, it’s time to take the partisan politics out of redistricting.
Before the 2020 Census, states should put the mapmaking in the hands of an independent commission.