Gerrymandering is still a problem

The original Gerry-manderI generally think Wonkblog is an excellent public service, especially compared to most of what passes for political coverage, and the fact that they feature perspectives from actual political scientists is excellent. That said, John Sides’ piece on why “Gerrymandering is not what’s wrong with American politics” feels a bit like it’s missing the forest for the trees.

Sides’ thesis, that the polarization of elected representatives in both the House and Senate seems to have very little to do with the ideology of their electorate and a lot to do with their political party, is a bit surprising, but I wouldn’t dream of criticizing an argument with so many graphs to back it up. But even if you accept the premise, that doesn’t necessarily mean that gerrymandering isn’t a factor.

First of all, the whole point of gerrymandering is to make it easier for candidates from one party to win elections. And when you have an environment where most representatives don’t face serious electoral challenges from the other party, that gives them one less excuse to buck their party’s leadership, which determines their committee memberships and standing within the congressional power structure. It would be surprising if that didn’t have an effect on party discipline.

Plus, in the absence of serious competition in the general election, the biggest electoral threat a representative can face is a primary challenge from a more extreme member of their own party. And since primary elections tend to feature lower turnout and especially partisan voters, you’d expect that system to produce candidates who were more extreme than their districts as well.

This has been happening a lot lately, especially thanks to the Tea Party. In the Senate, a lot of those candidates went on to lose in the general election, which is how our system is supposed to sort this stuff out. But in House elections—just as in states where one party isn’t competitive—that system breaks down.

And of course, gerrymandering is problematic for the same reason parties do it in the first place: It helps them win elections they otherwise wouldn’t. For instance, Democrats received more votes than Republicans in the House elections last year, but most states’ congressional districts were drawn by Republican-controlled legislatures and so more Republicans got elected.

And, the representatives who get elected from gerrymandered districts can get polarized in other ways. One of the running debates about “majority-minority” Congressional districts that were originally created to make Congress more diverse deals with the question of whether they’ve evolved into a sort of political segregation, by relegating minority communities into an echo chamber that nonminority candidates can safely ignore and preventing minority representatives from getting the broad-based appeal they need to reach higher office.

This is all worth mentioning because we can tend to fall into a sort of binary approach to problem identification: Either something is perfectly fine, or it’s responsible for all that is evil in the world. Which is crazy. Just because every hurricane doesn’t happen because of climate change doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t something we should worry about. Likewise, while we should also look at fixing our primary process and a bunch of other other factors that are skewing our politics, there’s no great argument for not reforming this ridiculous system whereby representatives can essentially pick their own voters.

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