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Gerrymanders make the odds against a successful challenge very hard to overcome -- and to an extent dilute the political expression of voter discontent.


Name

Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan Ehrenhalt is a senior editor at Governing.

Democrats were expecting a big year in Ohio in 2006, and they got one. With the Republican Party crippled by both financial scandal and widespread disdain for the retiring GOP governor, voters elected Democratic candidates to almost every major office: not only governor but also U.S. senator, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general -- ending more than a decade of Republican control in each case. None of these elections was even close. "There will be a sea change in Ohio at every level," one of the state's most prominent Democrats exulted on election night. "The significance of this is almost indescribable."

It was, indeed, the Great Blue Sweep of 2006, in Ohio as in much of the country. But as the votes poured in, the Democratic Party found itself puzzling over the one big prize that got away: the legislature. Not only did Democrats fail to capture the Ohio House or Senate -- which some thought might happen -- they didn't come near it. When the legislature convenes again this month, the House will still be Republican by a margin of 53-46. And the Senate, which was Republican by a lopsided 22-11 before November, scarcely moved at all. It's now 21-12. The Democrats gained one Senate seat. The voter discontent that installed their candidates in nearly all the major statewide offices in Columbus failed to produce a remotely similar result on the legislative side.

Why would voters cast Democratic votes at the top of the ballot and then change their minds in the next column down? Actually, there's a simple answer. They didn't.

If you take out a calculator and add up the votes cast for the Ohio Senate in 2006, you will find that there was something indeed resembling a blue tide. Returns from the Secretary of State's Office (they are unofficial and will change, but not by much), show that Democratic Senate candidates drew more than a million votes -- 1,007,284. Republicans drew 731,168. That's close to a 60-40 split.

So how did the GOP end up with a 21-12 majority in the chamber? Well, only 17 of the 33 Senate seats were up this year. And Democrats already held eight of those. So the best they could do mathematically was pick up nine. And you're never going to win all of the other party's seats, no matter how strong a tide there is. So that explains part of it.

But still, one measly seat? The Democrats draw 60 percent of the statewide Senate vote -- a plurality of 300,000 -- and all they get out of it is a one-seat gain? That makes no sense.

Or, rather, it doesn't make sense until you look at the margins of the winning candidates. All eight of the Republicans who won survived competitive campaigns by relatively narrow spreads. Six of the eight were in the 50 to 59 percent range. On the other hand, the nine Democratic winners all coasted home. Two weren't even opposed. The lowest Democratic winning percentage (60.8 percent) was very close to the highest Republican percentage (61.9 percent).

What's the explanation for that? I won't keep you in suspense any longer. In fact, I imagine you've figured it out by now. The Ohio Senate map is an elegant 21st-century gerrymander, drawn by Republican mapmakers to squeeze out as many Republican victories as possible by packing Democrats into a limited number of one-party enclaves with huge Democratic majorities. They did a pretty good job with the Ohio House, too, by the way: Democrats drew about 125,000 more votes than Republicans in the state's 99 House districts, and still fell four seats short of control.

This sort of thing is nothing new, of course. It has been a staple of legislative mapmaking since Elbridge Gerry invented it in Massachusetts in 1812 and lent his name to the practice. Both parties do it. Republicans were able to do it in Ohio in 2001 because they held all the major statewide offices, which gave them control of the state Apportionment Board that drew the map.

"It's definitely one of the most effective partisan plans," says Tim Storey, of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's one of the top two or three. The Republicans controlled that board, and they took advantage of it." As Storey is quick to add, Democrats would have been just as political had they been in charge -- and likely will be if they hold on to their newly won state offices and control the board in 2011.

I went back and looked at the numbers in Ohio because I was curious what effect gerrymandering really had on the 2006 results. I have to confess that I've always been a skeptic when it comes to the notion that parties can draw districts skillfully enough to rig the political process for any significant length of time.

One thing I know for sure is that no set of districts can be drawn cleverly enough to provide a guarantee against a powerful shift in the mood of the electorate. Republicans drew most of the district lines in current use for the U.S. House, and many experts proclaimed that the political artistry of those lines precluded any possibility of Democratic congressional control in the current decade. But public revulsion over the Iraq war proved too much for the maps to handle, and the House went Democratic.

Those discontents had their effect at the state legislative level as well. Republicans in Michigan and Pennsylvania had the same cartographic opportunities as their counterparts in Ohio in 2001, and they drew House and Senate district maps that seemed just as impervious to Democratic challenge. But it didn't work out that way. Gerrymander or no gerrymander, Democrats picked up nine House seats in Michigan and eight in Pennsylvania in 2006, and (pending a recount in Pennsylvania) hold majorities in both chambers.

But those results simply frame the most important question: Is the power of gerrymandering overrated, or did the skill of Republican mapmakers at the state level save the GOP from a 2006 electoral debacle far more humiliating than it actually turned out to be? At this point, I'm inclined to think the answer is a little of both.

Gerrymanders aren't impregnable. In the right year, with the right issues, the right candidates and enough money, either party can break through the best of them. But even in a year like 2006, they make the odds against a successful challenge very hard to overcome -- and to an extent, at least, dilute the political expression of voter discontent.

That's a legitimate problem for American democracy. The question is what to do about it. For decades, the forces of good government have been promoting a simple answer: Take mapmaking out of the hands of elected officials and turn it over to a nonpartisan commission. Several states, most famously Iowa, have been doing this for many years, and the results have been generally positive: no skewing of votes-to-seats like the one that happened in Ohio this year.

But when citizens are asked if they want this sort of reform, they usually say no. That's what they said in a referendum in Ohio in 2005. In California, the voters have turned down five different proposals for nonpartisan redistricting over the past quarter-century. Still, the reformers never seem to give up. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hopes to persuade the Democratic legislature to pass a nonpartisan redistricting plan later this year. The odds would seem to be against that happening.

But what if public sentiment changes? What if voters in states around the country become so tired of blatant partisan mapmaking that they finally decide to give the nonpartisan idea a try? Would that solve the problem?

To a degree, yes. In a small state such as Iowa, with a largely homogeneous population, it's easy to imagine a group of disinterested experts -- or a computer -- coming up with a map that doesn't tilt toward either party or disenfranchise any bloc of voters.

It's not so easy to imagine in a big, diverse state with highly concentrated minority populations -- a state, for example, such as Ohio. If you look at the districts where Democrats won the most lopsided victories for the Ohio Senate in 2006, you'll find that they are almost all densely populated urban constituencies with big blocs of minority voters. Republicans were delighted to pack these voters together in 2001, but even the most nonpartisan group of mapmakers would have had some difficulty figuring out how to unpack them.

The only sure way to create more competition in a city such as Cleveland would be to create districts shaped like slices of pizza, narrow wedges in the inner city that broaden out and take in enough suburban territory to make them politically competitive. That's been suggested, and Democrats would no doubt like to do it in 2011 if they could, but such a scheme would almost certainly fall victim to legal objections that it would reduce the number of minority candidates strong enough to win election.

The harder one looks for an ideal solution to the redistricting problem, the more one concludes that there is no ideal solution: Redistricting will always be unfair to somebody. What we can hope for is that it isn't systematically unfair to the same people and groups, election after election. Perhaps we're inching closer to that goal.Redistricting will always be unfair to somebody. The best we can hope for is that it isn't systematically unfair to the same people and groups, election after election.


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