Republicans will likely keep their House majority – even if Clinton wins by a landslide – and it’s because of gerrymandering.

By Michael Latner

While the presidential race has tightened, the possibility of Donald Trump being defeated by a wide margin has some Republicans worried about their odds of retaining control of Congress. However, only a handful of Republican-controlled districts are vulnerable. Speaker Paul Ryan’s job security and continuing GOP control of the House is almost assured, even if Democrats win a majority of the national Congressional vote. How is it that the chamber supposedly responsive to “The People Alone” can be so insulated from popular sentiment? It is well known that the Republican Party has a competitive advantage in the House because they win more seats by narrow margins, and thus have more efficiently distributed voters. What is poorly understood is how the current level of observed bias favoring the GOP was the result of political choices made by those drawing district boundaries.

This is a controversial claim, one that is commonly challenged. However, in Gerrymandering in America: The House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the Future of Popular Sovereignty, a new book co-authored by Anthony J. McGann, Charles Anthony Smith, Alex Keena and myself, we test several alternative explanations of partisan bias and show that, contrary to much professional wisdom, the bias that insulates the GOP House Majority is not a “natural” result of demographic sorting or the creation of “majority-minority” districts in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is the result of unrestrained partisan gerrymandering that occurred after the 2010 Census, and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Vieth v Jubelirer, which removed legal disincentives for parties to maximize partisan advantage in the redistricting process.

Partisan bias tripled after congressional redistricting

We measure partisan bias using the symmetry standard, which asks: What if the two parties both received the same share of the vote under a given statewide districting plan? Would they get the same share of seats? If not, which party would have an advantage?

We calculate seats/votes functions on the assumption of uniform partisan swing – if a party gains 5% nationally, it gains 5% in every district, give or take an allowance for local factors (simulated through random effects that reduce our estimates of bias). Linear regressions provide an estimate of what level of support the Democrats expect to win in each district if they win 50% of the national vote, given the national level of support for the party in actual elections, and we generate a thousand simulated elections with hypothetical vote swings and different random local effects for each district, to create our seats/votes functions.

Figure 1: Seats/Votes function for Congress 2002-2010
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Figure 2: Seats/Votes function for Congress 2012
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Figures 1 and 2 show the seats/votes functions under the 2002-2010 Congressional districts, and the 2012 post-redistricting districts, respectively. We observe a 3.4% asymmetry in favor of Republicans under the older districts. This is still statistically significant, but it is only about a third of the 9.39% asymmetry we observe in 2012. Graphically, the seats/votes function in Figure 1 comes far closer to the 50%votes/50%seats point. The bias at 50% of the vote is less than 2% under the older state districting plans, compared to 5% in 2012. That is, if the two parties win an equal number of votes, the Republicans will win 55% of House seats. Furthermore, the Democrats would have to win about 55% of the vote to have a 50/50 chance of winning control of the House in 2016. Thus it is not impossible that the Democrats will regain control of the House, but it would take a performance similar to or better than 2008, when multiple factors were favorably aligned for the Democrats.

Increased bias did not result from “The Big Sort” 

Perhaps the most popular explanation for increased partisan bias comes from the “Big Sort” hypothesis, which holds that liberals and conservatives have migrated to areas dominated by people with similar views. Specifically, because Democrats tend to be highly concentrated in urban areas, it is argued, Democratic candidates tend to win urban districts by large margins and “waste” their votes, leaving the Republicans to win more districts by lower margins.

The question we need to consider is whether the concentration of Democratic voters has changed relative to that of Republican voters since the previous districts were in place. In particular, if it is the case that urban concentration causes partisan bias, then we would expect to find relative Democratic concentration increasing in those states where partisan bias increases. In order to address this question, we measure the concentration of Democratic voters relative to that of Republicans with the Pearson moment coefficient of skewness, using county-level data from the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections. As shown in Table 1, in most states the level of skewness toward the Democrats actually decreased in 2012.

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In twenty-seven out of the thirty-eight states with at least three districts, the relative concentration of Democratic voters compared to Republican voters declines. Moreover, in those states where partisan bias increased between the 2000 and 2010 districting rounds, those with an increase in skewness are outnumbered by those where there was no increase in skewness, by more than two to one. We also find that there was reduced skewness in most of the states where there was statistically significant partisan bias in 2012.

Of course, we should not conclude that geographical concentration does not make it easier to produce partisan bias. North Carolina was able to produce a highly biased plan without the benefit of a skewed distribution of counties, but to achieve this, the state Generally Assembly had to draw some extremely oddly shaped districts. While the urban concentration of Democratic voters makes producing districting plans biased toward the Republicans slightly easier, it makes producing pro-Democratic gerrymanders very hard. In Illinois, the Democratic-controlled state legislature drew some extremely non-compact districts but still only managed to produce a plan that was approximately unbiased between the parties.

Increasing racial diversity does not require partisan bias

Another “natural” explanation for partisan bias, one that is especially popular among Southern GOP legislators, is that that it is impossible to draw districts that are unbiased while at the same time providing minority representation in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The need to draw more majority-minority districts, it is argued, disadvantages the Democrats because it forces the inefficient concentration of overwhelmingly Democratic minority voters.

There are four states with four or more majority-minority districts – California, Texas, Florida, and New York – and they account for more than 60% of the total number of majority-minority districts. Of these, Texas and Florida have statistically significant partisan bias, but California, Illinois, and New York do not, so the need to draw majority-minority districts does not make it impossible to draw unbiased districting plans. Yet many of the states that saw partisan bias increase do have majority-minority districts – or rather a single majority-minority district in most cases. It is possible that packing more minority voters into existing majority-minority districts creates partisan bias.

To test this possibility, we subtract the average percentage of African-Americans and Latinos in districts where those races made up a majority of the population in the 110th Congressional districts from the 113th Congress averages. Figures 3 and 4 display the results for these states. For majority-Latino districts, we find no evidence that states with increased Latino density have more biased redistricting plans.

Figure 3: Majority-Latino District Density Change and Symmetry Change
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Figure 4: Majority-Black District Density Change and Symmetry Change
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By contrast, states with increased majority-Black densities have clearly adopted more biased districting plans. Among the states with substantial reductions in partisan symmetry, only Louisiana (−1.9 %), Ohio (−1.0 %), and Pennsylvania (−0.9 %) had lower average percentages of African Americans in their majority-minority districts after redistricting. The three states with the largest increases in majority-Black district density, Tennessee (5.2 %), North Carolina (2.4 %), and Virginia (2.2 %), include some of the most biased plans in the country. This is not in any way required by the Voting Rights Act – indeed, it reduces the influence of African-American voters by using their votes inefficiently. However, it is consistent with a policy of state legislatures seeking partisan advantage by packing African-American voters, who overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party, into districts where the Democratic margin will be far higher than necessary.

Demography is not destiny

The bias we observe is not the inevitable effect of factors such as the urban concentration of Democratic voters or the need to draw majority-minority districts. It is for the most part possible to draw unbiased districting plans in spite of these constraints. Thus if state districting authorities draw districts that give a strong advantage to one party, this is a choice they have made – it was not forced on them by geography. The high level of partisan bias protecting GOP House control can only be explained in political terms. As we show in our book, Pro-Republican bias increased almost exclusively in states where the GOP controlled the districting process.

One of the immediate consequences of unrestrained partisan gerrymandering is that, short of a landslide Democratic victory resembling 2008, the Republicans are very likely to retain control of the House. But one of the more profound consequences is that redistricting has upended one of the bedrock constitutional principles, popular sovereignty. Without an intervention by the courts, political parties are free to manipulate House elections to their advantage without consequence.

 

Partisan dynamics of support for AV

Maine voters will decide in November whether to use the alternative vote (AV) for all single-winner elections. (I’m not sure about the congressional-district Electoral College votes.) Why does AV have traction, and if it wins, how long can we expect it to last? I assume we need to examine the incentives of party factions. I assume these factions are fighting over a law-making veto point, which is identical to the office itself in a single-winner context. (You can see how I use these assumptions in a working paper on STV, which is the PR cousin of AV.)

Democrats (two factions: regular and insurgent) are the main AV supporters right now. Why? The current Republican governor won with 48 percent of votes in a three-way race. The independent candidate was probably an insurgent Democrat. The 8 percent of voters who supported him probably would have voted for the regular Democrat in his absence. Regular Democrats like AV right now because it would move insurgent Democratic ballots into their column.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV before now? As Marsha Mercer notes for Pew:

State legislators in Maine first introduced ranked-choice voting legislation in 2001, when the governor was an independent. They did again when the governor was a Democrat, and once more during the term of current Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

When the bills went nowhere, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting-Maine collected 73,000 signatures for the citizen ballot initiative.

Regular Democrats didn’t like AV in 2010 because the insurgent Democrat led the regular Democrat, implying regular Democratic votes would have transferred to an insurgent Democrat, thereby creating an insurgent Democratic governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2006? One answer is that they had the governor they wanted, so the “transaction costs” of a referendum campaign outweighed the benefits. But that’s a lazy explanation. Another answer is that AV would have helped elect a right-of-center — ugh, I hate that word — candidate. The lead insurgent Democrat was Barbara Merrill. She has a history of supporting corporations. So a rerun of the 2006 election under AV would have created a Republican governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2002, just after the first introduction of AV legislation? Again, they had the Democrat they wanted, but that’s the lazy route. A glance at the vote totals shows the Green Party held the balance. “Ahh, the Green Party people would have ranked the Democrat second,” you say. That is not certain. The Green Party of the early 2000s had a reputation for “centrism” (that word again), meaning their votes may well have transferred to a Republican in an AV rerun of 2002. (I’ll let the Green Party explain its preferences.)

So regular Democrats like AV right now because they expect it to help them, not the insurgents. The minute AV elects an insurgent Democrat, regular Democrats will collude with Republicans to repeal AV.

Other lessons:

  1. Greens are not a genuine party of the left, at least not entirely. Many once came from the pain caucus.
  2. You like AV and want to keep it? Don’t run an insurgent Democrat who beats the regular Democrat in first-choice votes. (If you do, the regular will lose, their votes will transfer to the insurgent, Maine will have an insurgent Democratic governor, and the regular Democrats will be angry.)
  3. Are you an insurgent Democrat? Take over the Democratic Party (becoming a regular). That way you can win with AV if the former regulars run their own candidate, win with or without AV if they do not, and scream them down if they run their own candidate

“Votes that count” in different electoral systems

Throughout the discussion on electoral-system reform in Canada, I have seen various social-media posts that purport to compare the percentage of votes that “count” in Canada vs. in existing PR systems. Typically, these posts will cite a figure of 50% of votes counting in Canada and 95% or more in PR countries.

The numbers seemed fishy to me. I do not doubt that votes are substantially more likely to “count” towards election of a representative under PR than under FPTP or other majoritarian systems. But the 95% figure seemed too high.

As I happen to have a dataset of district-level electoral results in many countries at my disposal, it was not too hard to subject the claim to a test. The harder part is knowing how to operationalize “count”. I chose two methods, based on my understanding of the complaint that reform advocates have against FPTP. The problem, it will be seen, as I suspect both methods are being used by these advocates, but different methods for different systems.

The first method is the one that I believe they are applying to Canada, which is: “did my vote contribute to the election of someone in my district?” Guess what–when your district elects one, for many voters the answer is “no”. (And this may be sufficient reason to want to ditch the system!) The second method is one that I suspect the authors of these posts apply when looking at PR systems: “Did the party I voted for win representation?” That is, I suspect a district-level standard is being applied to FPTP, but a national-level one to PR countries. My calculations seem to bear that out.

If we use the first method–district-level count of votes for parties (or candidates) that did not win in the district, we almost nail the 50% figure for the most recent Canadian election for which I have data. In 2011, I get 50.4% of votes across the country “counting” in the sense that they were cast for the winner in the voter’s district.

Across the 25 FPTP elections for which I have complete data, the average figure is 55.8%. The lowest figures are around 47% in several UK and Indian elections, with the highest being 62% or more in the US and Barbados. (What do these latter two countries have in common? Very few votes going to parties other than the top two.)

I then apply that same standard to PR systems. A pause is needed here. Canada is very highly unlikely to adopt nationwide PR, either with a single national district (which I think we can say is politically and constitutionally impossible) or with districts but also nationwide compensation (as in Germany or Denmark, among others). Thus I consider the relevant metric to be those PR systems that employ districts, plural, and no nationwide compensation.

Using the same standard–votes “count” when cast for a party that wins a seat in the district–the mean for (districted) PR systems is 87.2%. That figure is a lot higher than 50%, I will grant. It is also a good deal lower than 95%.

If we look at nationwide (single-district) PR, guess what? 96.5%! A few specific elections come in at 99%, such as the Netherlands, 2002, and Israel, 1951. (Most Israeli and Dutch elections are over 97%, but Netherlands, 1952, was at a paltry 94.7%.) That’s great! However, most PR advocates, unless they are real purists (and not at all realists) do not advocate the adoption of the Dutch or Israeli type of PR.

What about the second standard? Under this one, your vote “counts” if it was cast for a party that won representation somewhere (at least one seat), even if it did not win in your district. As I noted above, I suspect this is the standard being applied, at least implicitly, to the PR countries in the social-media posts I have seen.

By this standard, districted PR systems’ average percentage of votes that count rises to 93.7%. We are almost to 95%! For nationwide PR, it obviously does not change (there’s only one district). What about for FPTP? 97.1%. Canada, 2011, comes in at 99.1%.

I do not actually know if a Canadian voter feels “represented” if she voted NDP but the NDP candidate in her district lost. I suspect many do feel so represented, or else the NDP would not get more than trivial vote shares in districts where it has no chance of winning. Yet it does. Greens can also get votes near or above their nationwide percentage even in many districts that are totally hopeless for them. Perhaps they feel represented by Elizabeth May (the one Green MP) even if they reside in a different district or province. Not as well represented as if their own MP was Green, presumably, but my point is that voters probably tend to think of national party systems when voting, even in districted systems. Yes, even in systems in which districts have one seat apiece.

There may be many reasons to prefer PR over FPTP. I can think of quite a few myself. But the idea of a vote “counting” towards representation may not be one of the more meaningful criteria to use. Or, if it is used, it might be OK not to exaggerate. The difference between 50% (Canada, 2011) and 87% (mean for districted PR) is impressive enough, using the first (district-based) criterion. We don’t need to pretend that twice as many votes “count” under PR as under FPTP. 1.74 times as many is still a lot more!

Brazil: President ousted by Senate

As expected, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been ousted by a vote of the Senate following her impeachment trial.

Not much time for blogging right now (as has been the case for a while–obviously), but a few quick observations follow.

I said at the time that she needed to lose her reelection bid; it was quite close. While some folks are looking at this and saying it shows why Brazil should have adopted a parliamentary system, I actually think presidentialism serves Brazil pretty well. I admit it is harder (again) to make that case this year.

Another way of stating my point is that the PT was quite good for Brazil for 12 years. The PT needed presidentialism to make it into power. And, no, I know I am not supposed to evaluate a regime type based on who wins (although I liked presidentialism here better as soon as Obama won!). But I really think parliamentartism in Brazil would be an ugly mess; the PT is one of the few major parties that is at all programmatic. And it probably would have been consigned to permanent opposition under a parliamentary regime, with shifting coalitions based on particularism and cronyism and not much on policy responsibility.

In any case, actual parliamentarism was never really on the table in the period following military rule, as far as I know. Back in the 1980s when the current constitution was drafted, what was called the “parliamentary” option actually was semi-presidential. And that might not be such a bad option for Brazil, but given the nature of the party system, it would still likely lean pretty strongly presidential, more-or-less regardless of the formal powers.

Of all the news stories I pulled up in searching on this, I noticed that most of them said that the Brazilian Senate had “impeached” the president today. As I understand that term, no, she was impeached already by the Chamber. The term means to bring charges, after all. Today she was convicted and removed.

And, no, it is not a “coup”. This follows the constitutional procedures. Whether the charges are “valid” or not is a separate question; the constitutional bodies with the responsibility in such cases said they were.

Some have said it is a bad precedent. The main precedent is it’s really bad to fail to retain even one third of the legislators’ backing, even if you have a “fixed” term.

 

 

JD’s Switzerland trip (with photos!)

In February I spent a weekend in Switzerland with a friend. We toured Basel and Bern, visiting the Federal Assembly and the legislatures of two cantons, and also witnessed campaigning for a number referendums (and more!) that would be held the next week.

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On electronic displays this poster showed up as a gif, with the trucks rushing through

On the federal level (and in similar terms in most Cantons and municipalities), Switzerland has two types of citizen-initiated referendum:

  • Votes on ‘popular initiatives’, which amend the constitution. These require the gathering of 100,000 signatures in no more than 18 months. To be approved in the referendum, they require both an overall majority of those voting and a majority of Cantonal votes.
  • ‘Optional’ or ‘facultative’ referendums, which concern recently-enacted federal laws (I like to call these veto-referendums). These require the gathering of 50,000 signatures (or 8 Cantons – though I don’t think this happens in practice) in no more than 100 days from the publication of the act in question. For the act to be vetoed it merely requires to be rejected by a majority of those voting.

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    A striking multilingual poster near the Basel docks

When we visited there were four federal referendums about to be held, of which three were popular initiatives and one was an optional referendum. As it happened, all four votes would follow the government’s official recommendation: rejection of all the initiatives and approval of the federal law.

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Central Bern, a protest against the popular initiative for the deportation of criminal migrants

The campaigns were very visible and there were posters were everywhere, both in public places alongside regular commercial advertising and on apartment balconies and small shops’ doors. We also saw many different leaflets, including some published by political parties. Far more visible than in the UK, which I also visited during the recent referendum – in London, the only sign I saw of the campaign were some flyerers at a tube station at rush hour on the day of the referendum.

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Cantonal referendum posters in Basel. Note the middle one, sponsored by the Liberal Democratic Party

(As a side note, Switzerland has virtually no regulation of campaign finance, either on the federal or cantonal level. I wonder if that had anything to do with it.)

A number of Cantonal referendums were held on the same day as the federal ones, and we saw posters for these in both Basel and Bern.

We visited three legislative buildings:

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Basel-City’s Canton/City hall

Basel-City’s late mediaeval rathaus (city hall), home to the cantonal legislature which also serves (with the exception of a handful of members) as city council. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the chamber, as the tour clashed with our visit of the Federal Assembly in Bern.
Secondly, Bern’s legislature, the Grosser Rat/Grand Conseil. As far as we could tell there were no regular tours; we were let in by the janitor.

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The Bernese legislature, the Grand Council

Switzerland generally has relatively large legislative chambers. Basel-City, with a population of just under 200,000, has 100 seats, almost double what it should have per cube root; Bern, with a population of  just over a million, has 160, 60% over cube root. The Confederation as a whole is just right with 200 in the lower house for a population of 8.3 million.

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The Federal Assembly’s National Council 

The federal legislature is spectacular. The picture here is of the lower house, the National Council. The upper house, the Council of States, was more difficult to get a good photo of so here’s a link; the wall painting is of a traditional ‘landsgemeinde’ or popular assembly that used to be common in rural areas. Today the practice persists as the form of government of two cantons, where the citizens meet once a year, while the agenda for that meeting, and most details of legislation, are prepared by an elected assembly. One of the members of the Council of States is still elected by their canton’s popular assembly every four years.

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Poster with the candidates of the Socialist/Social-Democratic (depending on whether you translate from French or German) Party in the executive by-election of February 28th (and ultimately also April 3rd for the second round)

Lastly, in Bern, we saw a poster for another campaign – we weren’t sure when we saw it, but it turned out to be for a by-election over two positions in the cantonal executive. Unlike the federal government, the cantonal executive councils are directly elected, mostly (as in Bern) through a two-round system, though proportionally in some cantons. The unusual thing in Bern is that there is one seat reserved for the French-speaking minority of the Bernese Jura – and this seat was one of the two up in the by-election. But, even more interestingly, it turns out this seat is not just reserved to candidates from that region, but the winner is the candidate with the higher geometric mean between the vote total in Bernese Jura and the canton as a whole – a fascinating and likely unique arrangement!