Gerrymandering and partisan composition of Congress (cont.)

At Rick (Hasen)’s request, I wanted to add just a bit to Rick (Pildes)’s original post on the new paper by Jowei Chen and David Cottrell, proposing a means to assess the net partisan consequences of congressional redistricting.

Given the inevitable shorthand descriptions of the paper in the media, a few short suggestions:

Most important, this paper does not mean that the benefits and detriments of the status quo are basically a wash.   (Though some might draw that conclusion from the summary, I also don’t think that’s the implication that either Rick or the original authors would draw.)  More on why, below the cut.

First, though I understand why net partisan gain is a compelling focus, it’s not the only measurement for whether redistricting is being performed acceptably (or “best,” which is a different question).  Political scientists value the overall balance of Rs and Ds, and many citizens who aren’t political scientists do too.  But there is more to value out of districts than just random final assignment of R or D.  Democrats in states in which the Republicans “gained” seats due to gerrymandering may not view those seats as fungible even given comparable states in which the Democrats “gained” seats due to gerrymandering.  People (including, but not limited to, minorities long excluded from the political system) may prefer equitable opportunities to elect their particular candidates of choice.  Communities may feel like they’ve got a representative delivering pork back home.  Particular communities benefit from not having their incumbents “targeted” for district dissection, and that impact is magnified in Congress by the seniority system.  And on and on.

Second is the “compared to what” question suggested by both Rick Pildes’s headline and the authors’ title.  (This is explicitly acknowledged as the “non-gerrymandered counterfactual” by the study authors: to evaluate the partisan gains, you need to know what they’re compared to.)  The headline should really say that gerrymandering has “little to no effect” on the partisan composition of Congress compared to a randomized system of drawing districts based on criteria designated by the study authors.

There is no state in the country — and there is no local jurisdiction in the country that I’m aware of, though I’d welcome information to the contrary — that currently draws districts using the simulation comparison described in the paper (random, equally populated, contiguous districts favoring particular geometric formulae).  There’s a reason for that (and it’s not merely a partisan reason).  Similarly, in many states, the baseline simulation comparison would likely not be lawful — not merely based on the Voting Rights Act, but also state law.  The study did not, I take it, conclude that gerrymandering presently has little to no effect on the composition of Congress compared to a system in which Republicans (or Democrats) controlled the process across the board, or compared to a map drawn according to federal law and the state laws in place in each individual state, or compared to some other proposal for how districts might be drawn or should be drawn, including the desire to avoid splitting meaningful communities along arbitrary computer-drawn lines.  These are all viable alternative measurements from which to draw lessons about the current partisan structure, each with embedded normative choices of its own … and the fact that they may be more cumbersome than the paper’s choices does not make them less real.

Neither of these caveats is a critique of the paper, which is both impressive and valuable, and should be read on its own merits.  But they’re important caveats, I think, about the broader conclusions that can be drawn from the paper itself.

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