The Petite Gerrymander of 2022
Plus, "submarine" gerrymanders that will matter in 2024 and beyond
A little under ten years ago, I wrote The Great Gerrymander of 2012. Today I offer the 2022 sequel to that exposé.
The 2012 gerrymander is the worst on record. Half a dozen states enacted extreme partisan maps. These maps enabled the rare spectacle of a minority of voters electing a majority of representatives in Congress. This year’s maps have far smaller effects, as I wrote yesterday. Congress is now a majoritarian institution. In that sense, the offense is far smaller.
But the closeness of the 2022 election has brought the effects of local gerrymanders into sharp relief. There’s been a lot of speculation about whether partisan gerrymandering was enough to flip control. After a careful look, I conclude that the answer is yes - and that racial gerrymandering is the one factor that had the largest effect - five seats, enough by itself to tip the balance of power in the House.
Into the weeds
Today’s Substack is a the deep-dive companion into my piece in The Atlantic. I offer it in the style of the Princeton Election Consortium, my alma mater. Which is to say, I get to go into the weeds. PEC has been a great forum for discussion. So please comment - I’ll do my best to respond, especially if you flag an omission or inaccuracy. PEC alumni, welcome!
In the long term, Fixing Bugs In Democracy is mainly a means of writing about long-term reform. See the archives for some good examples. I will use this week’s news to link the recent elections with what may follow in future years this redistricting cycle.
Local unfairness, global balance
Local unfairness and global fairness are not contradictory, but can happen naturally in the national game of Redistricting Tug-of-war. Unlike 2012, this year many of the offenses cancelled one another.
The unified story of the Petite Gerrymander of 2022 has several positives:
Majoritarianism: a majority of votes nationally is likely to produce a majority of seats. Indeed, at a national level there is a tiny advantage for Democrats, as described in my Atlantic piece - though practically, it’s indistinguishable from zero.
Partial reform: I offer a big cheer for those who made progress in the face of hostile forces. In Michigan, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, Congressional maps now treat the major parties more equitably than they did a decade before.
Increased competition: This year, 53 districts were decided by margins of 7 points or less - as I suggested would happen. That’s way up from 2012, when they were only 33 such districts.
We should celebrate these improvements to democracy.
However, there is no denying that local injustices remain. With the House heading towards a governing margin of 222 seats, four seats above the minimum 218, even small redistricting injustices deserve mention. And if what you really wanted was for Democrats to be in charge, then you might be tempted to waver in your commitment to the advances listed above. Finally, there are challenges for the future. In 2024, some threats that did not materialize this year will begin to erupt.
Which maps count as gerrymanders?
For purposes of today, a gerrymander is defined as a map that largely lacks competition and gives more seats to one party than would be expected using party-blind principles. For a large state that can be done using statistical tests and computer simulation, as we do at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. In smaller states there have to be specific features such as a targeted city or racial group, and a clear benchmark for comparison.
Here’s the accounting.
Texas and Illinois: mutual cancellation
Global view: The two most consequential gerrymanders this year largely canceled each other: Texas and Illinois. In each case, the majority party won three or four more more seats than a party-blind map would have produced. In both states, voters lack control over who they elect to Congress. But Texas helped Republicans, and Illinois helped Democrats. So the net effect was close to zero.
Local view: One of these states, Illinois, has a process for citizen initiatives to amend the constitution and take away the redistricting power from the legislature. Texas has no such process.
Ohio and Maryland: smaller than expected
Two ambitious Congressional gerrymanders, in Ohio and Maryland, did not do what their architects intended. But the reasons were different.
Global view: Each gerrymander ended up netting just one excess seat for its party, so once again they cancelled.
Local view: Ohio overreach. Ohio Republican redistricting commissioners drew a map that the state Supreme Court found violated constitutional requirements for approximate proportional representation of voters as a statewide level. The court sought, unsuccessfully, for the commission to draw a map that would elect 8 or 9 Republicans out of the 15-seat delegation. But then the court decided that it lacked the power to act unilaterally. So the gerrymander stood.
In an ironic twist, the commission overplayed their hand. Their map was intended to elect as many as 12 Republicans. But if you look at our analytics at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project there is something funny: three of the districts are every-so-slightly Democratic leaning. What’s going on?
Basically, this map anticipated a red wave that would carry all the close districts. But in the end, the wave was no more than a mist. Democrats won in the 1st and 13th districts by 5 points. The resulting delegation, 10 Republicans and 5 Democrats, is only one seat more than the Ohio constitution would mandate. Bernie Grofman calls an under-engineered gerrymander like this a dummymander. In the end, the ill-gotten gains amounted to a single seat.
The future for Ohio: This map is only effective for four years, so after the 2024 election, the Ohio commission must replace this map. If they draw another gerrymander, that will probably fuel citizen efforts to amend the constitution and fix the bug in the state’s redistricting process. Note that more urgently, Ohioans should stop efforts to make the initiative process harder.
Local view: the Maryland brushback. The Court of Appeals in Maryland stopped a gerrymander in which all eight congressional seats would go to Democrats. At that point, the General Assembly offered a substitute plan in which they “only“ won seven seats. The court accepted the substitute map, and last week, it performed as expected. Our computer simulations suggest that a party blind map would have elected five or six Democrats. The excess, one ill-gotten Democratic seat, cancels out Ohio.
The future for Maryland: No clear path for reform.
Wisconsin: evading the state Supreme Court
In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court stepped in to redistricting. But then swing justice Brian Hagedorn limited changes to the most minimal alteration. The result is a delegation composed of 6 Republicans and 2 Democrats, at least one seat off from a more party-blind map. This map gets an “F” from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
The future for Wisconsin: In April 2023, there’s a state Supreme Court race to replace a conservative retiring justice. That will shape the court’s stance on voting rights for years to come.
Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina: What happens to a seat deferred?
Global view: We now come to three districts for which there is no counterbalancing effect: the loss of three black-majority seats in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia. In these cases, lower courts identified a violation of the Voting Rights Act and ordered the drawing of an additional district that offered the opportunity for Black voters to elect a representative. Without explanation, the Supreme Court blocked these actions, claiming that the November election was too soon to make changes to districts. But for the Supreme Court’s action, these three seats would have been won by Democrats.
In addition, racial gerrymanders have been drawn in Florida and Texas. Those are counted elsewhere for their contributions to broader statewide partisan gerrymanders in those states.
However, it’s not clear that remedial districts will ever be drawn. The majority on the Supreme Court is hostile to the Voting Rights Act, and might just find a way to let the maps stand in 2024 and beyond.
The future: Until Congress renews the Voting Rights Act to get around hostile court precedents, or until the courts change in composition, the national landscape for racially fair districting looks challenging.
Note, January 8, 2023: South Carolina’s 1st District has been ruled a racially-based gerrymander by a three-judge federal panel. The panel of three Democratic appointees in the Fourth Circuit was unanimous. It uses a different logical rationale than the other cases, relying on a precedent that has been used by conservatives to limit the use of race to benefit Black communities. Flipping that precedent on its head might help this ruling survive on appeal.
Combined with Florida’s elimination of former Rep. Al Lawson’s seat, racially-based gerrymanders add up to five seats - the largest net effect of any that I have described here.
Utah, Tennessee, and Nevada: City splits
Global view: Republicans gained one seat net from the strategy of splitting cities.
Like the Egyptian god Osiris, Salt Lake City and Nashville were split into many parts. Before redistricting, Salt Lake City was in Utah’s 4th district and was decided by extremely close margins in several elections, and Nashville comprised most of the safely Democratic Tennessee 5th district. Between the two of them, Utah and Tennessee are now sending 12 Republicans and 1 Democrat to Congress, a total benefit of one or two seats to Republicans.
Democrats also engaged in city-splitting. The Nevada 1st Congressional district was 41% Hispanic voting age population in 2020, but redistricting split Hispanic communities along I-15, reducing the 1st district to 31% HVAP and making the 4th district safe Democratic.
City-splitting was not done broadly. For example, Indianapolis was not split, as it could have been. In Kansas and Nebraska, to the extent to which cities were carved up, the districts were still competitive. In Kansas, Sharice Davids (D) was able to score a 12-point victory. In Nebraska, Don Bacon (R) won his district by just three points, indicating that his district is competitive, the fundamental mark of a non-gerrymandered district.
The future: One solution to city-splitting is to mandate the use of communities of interest as a districting principle. This solution can also supplement or even replace the use of race.
North Carolina and Florida: future time bombs
Florida’s Congressional map is an egregious gerrymander. However, the gerrymander turned out to be redundant in 2022. So it’s really a time bomb for 2024.
The congressional map in Florida has the strange quality of being a Republican Gerrymander imposed upon a Republican legislature. Governor Ron DeSantis insisted upon an egregious gerrymander, guaranteeing 18 to 20 seats for Republicans out of 28. The legislature would not have gone nearly so far, and was headed for passing a plan that adhered to the Fair Districts constitutional amendments. DeSantis went much further, including the elimination of a Black opportunity district in the north.
In the end, it wasn’t necessary. Republicans won statewide offices by twenty points. Under such circumstances, a fair and competitive map would have produced a similar result. (Note that the state Senate’s alternative, which includes the Black opportunity district, gives a similar predicted overall result as the actual outcome.)
The point of a gerrymander is to make sure that the dominant party gets the results of a great year, even in years when the vote isn’t great. In that respect, the true test of Florida’s gerrymander comes in 2024. At that time, it may be possible to challenge the map in court. Another possibility is to pursue an independent redistricting commission by ballot initiative, which is how the Fair Districts amendments were passed.
North Carolina’s Congressional map was redrawn in state court this year, and achieved a measure of fairness. However, the court only implemented the remedial map for a single election. Republicans have full control of the redistricting process in North Carolina, and another gerrymander is surely in the works. And in last week’s election, the state Supreme Court moved to the right.
The future: In 2024 and beyond, Florida and North Carolina may give an approximately six-seat advantage for Republicans. Action in Florida may reduce this impact.
The bottom line
Once again, here’s the table of all the effects listed above.
Net effect: 6 seats for Republicans.
So, which matters more, global fairness or local fairness? Comments are open.
(11/19/2022: per discussion in comments, adding Nevada to the list)
(1/8/2023: adding South Carolina’s racial gerrymander)
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