Spurious majorities in the US House in Comparative Perspective

In the week since the US elections, several sources have suggested that there was a spurious majority in the House, with the Democratic Party winning a majority–or more likely, a plurality–of the votes, despite the Republican Party having held its majority of the seats.

It is not the first time there has been a spurious majority in the US House, but it is quite likely that this one is getting more attention ((For instance, Think Progress.)) than those in the past, presumably because of the greater salience now of national partisan identities.

Ballot Access News lists three other cases over the past 100 years: 1914, 1942, and 1952. Sources disagree, but there may have been one other between 1952 and 2012. Data I compiled some years ago showed a spurious majority in 1996, if we go by The Clerk of the House. However, if we go by the Federal Election Commission, we had one in 2000, but not in 1996. And I understand that Vital Statistics on Congress shows no such event in either 1996 or 2000. A post at The Monkey Cage cites political scientist Matthew Green as including 1996 (but not 2000) among the cases.

Normally, in democracies, we more or less know how many votes each party gets. In fact, it’s all over the news media on election night and thereafter. But the USA is different. “Exceptional,” some say. In any case, I am going to go with the figure of five spurious majorities in the past century: 1914, 1942, 1952, 2012, plus 1996 (and we will assume 2000 was not one).

How does the rate of five (or, if you like, four) spurious majorities in 50 elections compare with the wider world of plurality elections? I certainly do not claim to have the universe of plurality elections at my fingertips. However, I did collect a dataset of 210 plurality elections–not including the USA–for a book chapter some years ago, ((Matthew Soberg Shugart, “Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems,” in To Keep or Change First Past the Post, ed. By André Blais. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.)) so we have a good basis of comparison.

Out of 210 elections, there are 10 cases of the second party in votes winning a majority of seats. There are another 9 cases of reversals of the leading parties, but where no one won over 50% of seats. So reversals leading to spurious majority are 4.8% of all these elections; including minority situations reversals are 9%. The US rate would be 10%, apparently.

But in theory, a reversal should be much less common with only two parties of any significance. Sure enough: the mean effective number (N) of seat-winning parties in the spurious majorities in my data is just under 2.5, with only one under 2.2 (Belize, 1993, N=2.003, in case you were wondering). So the incidence in the US is indeed high–given that N by seats has never been higher than 2.08 in US elections since 1914, ((The original version of this statement, that “N is almost never more than 2.2 here” rather exaggerated House fragmentation!)) and that even without this N restriction, the rate of spurious majorities in the US is still higher than in my dataset overall.

I might also note that a spurious majority should be rare with large assembly size (S). While the US assembly is small for the country’s population–well below what the cube-root law would suggest–it is still large in absolute sense. Indeed, no spurious majority in my dataset of national and subnational elections from parliamentary systems has happened with S>125!

So, put in comparative context, the US House exhibits an unusually high rate of spurious majorities! Yes, evidently the USA is exceptional. ((Spurious majorities are even more common in the Senate, where no Republican seat majority since at least 1952 has been based on a plurality of votes cast. But that is another story.))

As to why this would happen, some of the popular commentary is focusing on gerrymandering (the politically biased delimitation of districts). This is quite likely part of the story, particularly in some sates. ((For instance, see the map of Pennsylvania at the Think Progress link in the first footnote.))

However, one does not need gerrymandering to get a spurious majority. As political scientists Jowei Chen and Jonathan Rodden have pointed out (PDF), there can be an “unintentional gerrymander,” too, which results when one party has its votes less optimally distributed than the other. The plurality system, in single-seat districts, does not tote up party votes and then allocate seats in the aggregate. It only matters in how many of those districts you had the lead–of at least one vote. Thus a party that runs up big margins in some of its districts will tend to augment its total in its “votes” column at a faster rate than it augments its total in the “seats” column. This is quite likely the problem Democrats face, which would have contributed to its losing the seat majority despite its (apparent) plurality of the votes.

Consider the following graph, which shows the distribution (via kernel densities) of vote percentages for the winning candidates of each major party in 2008 and 2010.

Kernel density winning votes 2008-10
Click image for larger version

We see that in the 2008 concurrent election, the Democrats (solid blue curve) have a very long and higher tail of the distribution in the 70%-100% range. In other words, compared to Republicans the same year, they had more districts in which they “wasted” votes by accumulating many more in the district than needed to win it. Republicans, by contrast, tended that year to win more of their races by relatively tighter margins–though their peak is still around 60%, not 50%. I want to stress, the point here is not to suggest that 2008 saw a spurious majority. It did not. Rather, the point is that even in a year when Democrats won both the vote plurality and seat majority, they had a less-than optimal distribution, in the sense of being more likely to win by big margins than were Republicans.

Now, compare the 2010 midterm election, in which Republicans won a majority of seats (and at least a plurality of votes). Note how the Republican (dashed red) distribution becomes relatively bimodal. Their main peak shifts right (in more ways than one!) as they accumulate more votes in already safe seats, but they develop a secondary peak right around 50%, allowing them to pick up many seats narrowly. That the peak for winning Democrats’ votes moved so much closer to 50% suggests how much worse the “shellacking” could have been! Yet even in the 2010 election, the tail on the safe-seats side of the distribution still shows more Democratic votes wasted in ultra-safe seats than is the case for Republicans. ((It is interesting to note that 2010 was very rare in not having any districts uncontested by either major party.))

I look forward to producing a similar graph for the 2012 winners’ distribution, but will await more complete results. A lot of ballots remain to be counted and certified. The completed count is not likely to reverse the Democrats’ plurality of the vote, however.

Given higher Democratic turnout in the concurrent election of 2012 than in the 2010 midterm election, it is likely that the distributions will look more like 2008 than like 2010, except with the Republicans retaining enough of those relatively close wins to have held on to their seat majority.

Finally, a pet peeve, and a plea to my fellow political scientists: Let’s not pretend there are only two parties in America. Since 1990, it has become uncommon, actually, for one party to win more than half the House votes. Yet my colleagues who study US elections and Congress continue to speak of “majority”, by which they mean more than half the mythical “two-party vote”. In fact, in 1992 and every election from 1996 through at least 2004, neither major party won 50% of the House votes. I have not ever aggregated the 2006 vote. In 2008, Democrats won 54.2% of the House vote, Republicans 43.1%, and “others” 2.7%. I am not sure about 2010 or 2012. It is striking, however, that the last election of the Democratic House majority and all the 1995-2007 period of Republican majorities, except for the first election in that sequence (1994), saw third-party or independent votes high enough that neither party was winning half the votes.

Assuming spurious majorities are not a “good” thing, what could we do about it? Democrats, if they are developing a systematic tendency to be victims of the “unintentional gerrymander”, would have an objective interest in some sort of proportional representation system–perhaps even as much as that unrepresented “other” vote would have.

43 thoughts on “Spurious majorities in the US House in Comparative Perspective

  1. I’m not sure it makes sense to just add up “Democratic House votes” and “Republican House votes”. Different states have rather different voting systems!

    Louisiana has its jungle primaries, how do you count those? What about the new top-two elections in California? Uncontested seats? Vote-by-mail? Short versus long ballots?


  2. This Daily Kos diary is worth reading in this context:


    The diarist estimates that the Republicans polled 48.8% nationwide in the 2012 House elections, the Democrats polled 48.5%, and the Libertarians polled 1.1%.

    However, the diarist, “KevinP3” adds 175,000 votes to the Democratic or Republican totals in every district where one of their incumbents was unopposed in the general election. He states that if you don’t make this adjustment, the aggregate raw vote figures indicate a Democratic popular vote plurality.

    I actually wrote up a lengthy analysis of the likely effects of gerrymandering, using the state by state figures posted by “KevinP3”, which since its germane (though probably overdetailed) I can post here later. The methodology was just to estimate the likely distribution of seats under a “neutral map”, given the vote totals, and compare that to the actual distribution. I also looked at where seats changed hands, and why.

    My conclusion was that the Republican gerrymandering advantage netted them at the most a dozen seats. This is without adjusting for the Democratic concentration of the votes in the cities. The concentration is enough that a neutral map would likely have a Republican bias.

    Incidentally, Republican presidential candidates won a majority of congressional districts in 1976 and in 2000, when the national popular vote was narrowly won by the Democratic candidate. So there is clearly a bias, and the Republican advantage in gerrymandering is usually not held to start until 2002.


  3. I wonder what the impact of the various barriers to voting is. I do not think I have ever waited longer than 10 minutes to vote, although that may just mean that election administrators here expect everyone to vote so they provide accordingly. That includes several interstate votes and 2 cast at embassies outside Australia. My suspicion is that the voting barriers need to be taken into account also.


  4. Well, I don’t know how else we’d do it, other than to add up general election votes for each winning candidate by party.

    The uncontested seats (which in 2012 would include those few California districts in which one major party had no runoff participant) are presumably the main reason for discrepancies in different sources.


  5. On Alan’s point at #3, I don’t disagree but the comment doesn’t really have anything to do with vote – seat distribution. The comment is about the difficulty of casting votes in the first place. But the original posting by MSS was about a legislative majority not reflecting the votes that were actually cast.

    Its possible to have the popular vote loser win a legislative majority even in elections where most adults are not legally allowed to vote, most notably in South Africa in 1949, and these instances still constitute a problem.

    Australia has had a few of these reversals despite a clean electoral process compared to the U.S., including a lack of gerrymandering. The existence of a two party system with well defined voting blocks, in which both parties focus on the median voter to the extent of producing alot of close elections, may have something to do with this.


  6. Anyway, this is a fairly lengthy analysis on the possible effects of gerrymandering in the 2012 House elections, based on an admitted cursory look at the figures posted on Daily Kos Elections by diarist “Kevin P3” (the diary can be found here: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/11/08/1159272/-Dissecting-the-House-Popular-Vote).

    Essentially, I looked at the popular vote margin in each state and compared that to the seats won by each party in each state. Three caveats are in order about the methodology:

    1) As stated earlier, “KevinP3” assigns 175,000 phantom votes to incumbent Congressmen in districts where they were running unopposed. This has the effect of giving the Republicans a narrow plurality in the national popular vote for the House, compared with a narrow Democratic plurality indicated by the raw figures.

    2) In my estimates of the seats each party would have won on a neutral map, I made the assumption that the split would not be proportional, but that the popular vote winner would get a bonus in terms of seats that would increase along with the popular vote margin. It usually works this way in elections held on neutral maps.

    3) The popular vote totals are for Congressional candidates, and in an election feought on a set of real neutral maps, these totals would almost certainly change as the neutral maps would entice stronger challengers to enter the race.

    Overall, gerrymandering seems to have given the Republicans a net advantage of 13 seats this cycle. However, it should be kept in mind that the Democratic concentration of the vote in cities would put them at a disadvantage on a neutral map of single member districts. Adjusting for this actually removes nearly all the Republican advantage.

    The Republican gerrymandering advantage was most pronounced in the Rust Belt. It gained them 4 or 5 additional seats in Pennsylvania, 2 or 3 in Ohio, 2 or 3 in Michigan, 1 or 2 seats each in Wisconsin and New Jersey, and an additional seat in Indiana. All of these were gerrymanders by Republican state legislatures, except for New Jersey, which has a convoluted process that can best be described as “gerrymander by commission”. These gerrymanders provided an additional 11 to 16 seats.

    Elsewhere, gerrymanders by Republican state legislatures gained the GOP one or two additional seats each in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia for a net of three to six extra seats.

    Maps with Democratic advantages fell into diverse categories. Surprisingly, though the Republicans controlled the redistricting process in Texas, the map their yielded the Democrats 3 or 4 more seats than they probably would have won on a neutral map. Essentially, the Republicans conceded 3 of the 4 districts Texas gained to the Democrats. This seems to be due to the influence of Voting Righs Act mandates for the creation of majority-minority districts, which the Republicans are petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn. VRA influenced maps gave the Democrats an additional seat each in Louisiana and Mississippi, and undoubtedly saved a couple of districts in Georgia and Alabama that would have been chopped to pieces if the Republican state legislatures had had a free hand. It should be noted that commissions would have still created half a dozen minority-minority or at least minority-influenced districts on community of interest grounds.

    Independent commission drawn maps favored the Democrats by 1 to 3 seats in California, and a seat in Arizona, assuming all current leads in these states hold when all the votes are counted. Again, VRA considerations may have come into play. The additional Democratic seat can even be identified as the rather ridiculous Long Beach-Garden Grove district created by the commission.

    Democrats controlled the process in Illinois and Maryland. While in Maryland gerrymandering definitely gained them a seat –an independent commission would have left the conservative district based in the western extension of the state alone- they don’t seem to have won excess seats in Illinois, maybe one at the most. The 9.7% Democatic popular vote margin in Illinois could well have given them two thirds (12 out of 18) of the seats according to the cube rule, though in all likelihood the concentration of the Democratic vote in Chicago would have held their total down to 10 or 11 seats. The gerrymander seems to have counteracted both this, and Republican overperformance in previous recent Congressional elections in the state.

    Likewise, the court drawn map in New York may have given the Democrats an additional seat, though the Democatic vote in New York is not as concentrated in New York City as much as the Democratic vote in other states are concentrated in the large cities. It appears the Republican drawn map in Utah gave the Democrats an additional seat, but in fact what happened is that an incumbent Democrat held on in one district by a narrow margin while the Republicans won landslides in the other three districts.


  7. Ed, I assumed Alan meant that differences in the difficulty of voting could have influenced turnout, and thereby vote share. Suppose voting in Massachusetts takes ten minutes, but voting in Oklahoma requires a six hour wait in line. The turnout in Oklahoma would probably be lower, so when all votes are aggregated there would be an artificial popular vote advantage for the Democrats.

    Thanks for the analysis of gerrymandering effects, it’ll be useful to keep on hand!

    MSS, you’re probably right that just adding up the total votes is the best way we’ve got, despite its imperfections. Just pointing out the difficulty in comparing plurality reversals across countries. Thanks for the post, and for the link to that Chen and Rodden paper.


  8. Is there a statistical method that might untangle the effects of gerrymandering from the (conceptually) separate effects of winner-take-all? Such an analysis would have to be based on some way of measuring gerrymandering, presumably by comparing actual districts with hypothetical districts determined by some supposedly neutral set of criteria.

    I’ve been bravely asserting that winner-take-all explains more variance than gerrymandering does. It would be comforting to be able to prove it.


  9. Don’t we also have apportionment problems between the states as well? You have to also remember that most small states vote Republican. Even if a PR system is used the Wyoming Rule would have to be used, and every state having 2 and more members would ensure some sort of proportionality. It would be nice that rural states would get Democrat representation, and Urban areas get Republican representation easing the rural/urban polarization. In order to get true proportionality we would need at large seats nationwide capped at 10% of the House? The only way to achieve that is through a Constitutional Amendment.

    If the Democrats had won a majority of the votes, but not seats in the house, then one can say the Tea Party movement has been a failure?

    A multi-party system would be nice; I know that this is off topic; I think a state should experiment with PR before it is tried at the Federal Level. I can imagine California State Assembly having a very strong robust representation of the Green Party. I can imagine California having a Swedish style party system when the Social Democrats were so dominant. It’s kind of funny that the Democrats have a two/thirds majority in both chambers, and some Democrats were oppose to independent redistricting commission, and Republicans support a reform that would limit their influence, when they thought they would win more seats, many thought the same about term limits. It’s funny about the paradoxes of politics.


  10. I agree with Alan. Even without an increase in S (which should be done anyway). the US House could have an average M of up to 8.7 (=435/50) if elected by PR.*

    If large states were divided into districts of some set maximum M, the overall average would decline. But it could easily be made around 5, with adequate proportionality, and the few small states with 2 or even 1 seat would have little impact on the national proportionality.

    Given the low likelihood of PR being accepted, let’s not advocate unnecessary complexity!

    * I am leaving DC out of the denominator, because it is left out. Even though it should not be, of course.


  11. Malta addressed this issue in a pretty unique way, though not without serious strife. The Labour party won the 1981 election 34 seats to 31 (they have 13 districts returning 5 MPs each by STV), but the Nationalists won the first-preference popular vote 50.9-49.1 (there were no and independents won just 29 of more than 255k votes–pretty much the purest two-party system in the world, despite proportional elections). After the Nationalist Party boycotted parliament for a couple of years, and after major partisan strife at times verging on civil war, the Constitution was amended to guarantee that any party that won a majority of the vote would receive extra seats so that it had a one-seat majority in parliament (and it was later revised to that a winner with a plurality, but no majority, also gets this majority bonus if it falls shot on seats).

    Since then, this principle has been used in 3 of 6 general elections to give the popular vote winners a parliamentary majority–in 1987, 1996, and the last elections in 2008.

    New Zealand had two spurious majorities in a row in 1978 and 1981, where Labour received a plurality but the National Party took the most seats. Once Labour finally took power in 1985, they set up a Royal Commission which proposed MMP, which was finally enacted after a binding referendum in 1993 and put into use for every general election since 1996.


  12. I am not completely clear, and as with most contested areas of US law, it is hard to find a definitive answer (that happens when your ely on 17th century drafting technique).

    Is it within the powers of the Congress to pass a law requiring:

    1 impartial, professional and nonpartisan election administration?

    2 ditto for redistricting?

    3 standard procedures, times, and access for voting?


  13. Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states:

    “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Chusing Senators.”

    While I agree the Constitution is remarkably poorly drafted, its pretty clear that the answer to Alan’s three question is “yes”.


  14. The Monkey Cage essay seems to agree with my conclusion that gerrymandering cost the Democrats about a dozen districts in 2012, not enough to deprive them of the majority.

    I have some minor or maybe not so minor quibbles with the essay. The first is that a number of states with “bipartisan gerrymanders” are listed, and is shown that the Democrats underperformed in these states too, to bolster the argument that the partisan Republican gerrymanders may have had a limited overall effect. Bipartisan gerrymanders does not mean a neutral map. Bipartisan gerrymanders are, well, gerrymanders. Plus most of the states listed as having a “bipartisan gerrymander” did not, in fact, have a bipartisan gerrymander.

    Of the five states listed, in Colorado and Minnesota Democratic governors and Republican legislatures agreed on maps that protected incumbents in both parties, which is what a bipartisan gerrymander is (and both of these cases were mild, meaning a neutral commission might well have produced a neutral map). In New York, the map was produced by a judge, which is not the same as one produced by a neutral commission. Judges will tend to take the map from the previous cycle and make minor alterations, which means if the map from the previous cycle was a gerrymander, the judge would ensure a version of its survives for another ten years. The argument made by Tom Delay for the mid-term Texas gerrymander of the 2000s was that it was correcting a judge-made map that had made only a few changes to a Democratic gerrymander that had been in effect in the 1990s. In the case of New York, the judge seems to have produced what the legislature was going to produce anyway, if the New York state legislature was actually capable of producing constructive legislation in a timely manner. In Florida, the map was drawn by a partisan Republican state legislature, though it was acting within an anti-gerrymandering law and climate, so the result was a mild partisan Republican gerrymander. The analog was the Democratic California state legislature producing a fairly reasonable map for the 2002 cycle in the face of an anti-gerrymandering backlash. And New Jersey is a special case where a commission chooses between a partisan gerrymander proposed by Republicans, and a partisan gerrymander proposed by Democrats, in this case the Republican governor successfully engineered a Republican majority on the commission, so the result in 2002 was a fairly straightforward partisan Republican map. This is important because the biggest discrepancies between the “actual” and “expected” result were in New Jersey, and to a lesser extent Florida. The evidence looks different if New Jersey is treated as a straight partisan Republican gerrymander.

    The other problem is that the article doesn’t look at what happened in all the states, so it doesn’t notice that the Democrats seem to have gained slightly more than their expected share of seats in states where there was a genuinely neutral commission (California, but arguably also Arizona, in Washington the commission produced a map that was slightly Republican friendly, and Iowa now has too few federal House seats to matter). The Democrats seem to have been helped by the existence of majority-minority seats in parts of Texas and the deep South, parts of the country that have become so Republican in federal elections that the Democrats would be swamped if these seats had not been carved out. However, this argument is difficult to say because its possible to create all but two or three of these districts community-of-interest friendly maps that respect county lines, and neutral commissions would probably have created most of them anyway, even in the absence of the Voting Rights Act.


  15. Both here and at the Monkey cage, much of the discussion, to me anyway, is missing the point. I do not think why there is a discrepancy between votes and seats is particularly important. I may be getting entirely the wrong impression, but I do not think the discrepancy is acceptable if it can be established that it is not intentional.

    I do not really care whether anyone has eaten deeply of the apple of gerrymandering or not. The question to me is whether the system treats Democrat and Republican voters equally.

    There can be no appeal to some ancient relict from Phildalephia either, The House is supposed to reflect the popular will. It does not.


  16. yeah, I meant to say they established the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform in 1985, but they did take power in 1984. It’s interesting that it was actually National, the party that had benefited from two consecutive spurious majority governments, that was actually the government that called the non-binding 1992 referendum and the binding 1993 referendum on electoral reform. For a brief period in the late 80s and early 90s, it would have been quite possible to describe National as the more center-left of the two main parties in New Zealand.


  17. One thing to note is that “neutral commissions” are not necessarily “neutral” in many US states and countries, simply not composed of legislators.

    For instance, for New Jersey’s congressional Redistricting Commission, the presiding officer (almost always elected, as in most legislatures in the US, on party lines) and minority leader of each chamber name two members each, the chairmen of the two largest parties (in terms of gubernatorial vote at the last election) name two members each, and the 12 partisan-nominated members name a 13th “independent” tiebreaking member (with the state’s Supreme Court [nominated by the partisan-elected governor and confirmed by the partisan-elected Senate] naming the 13th member from nominees by the two largest parties if the 12 Redistricting Commission members cannot agree). That’s hardly neutral, simply divided amongst and intended to perpetuate the two largest parties. Of course, if a third-party gubernatorial nominee were to make major headway, it could seriously disrupt the process (for instance, a Colorado style situation, in which the Tea Party-fueled Constitution Party nominee in the 2010 gubernatorial election beat the Republican).

    California’s system has 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 members from neither major party (Democrats and Republicans are specified in the Constitution as “members of the two largest parties on the basis of registration”) selected more-or-less at random on a Citizen’s Assembly basis, but with significant legislative control as to who may be selected.

    Courts often face significant constraints in drawing their maps. In Texas, justices (as well as the Legislature) have to use the last Voting Rights Act-precleared map as a baseline. However, the Supreme Court overturned an interim map drawn by the courts as not adhering closely enough to the map drawn by the Legislature in 2011 (a map which was later found to be unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered) and told them to draw a new one which more closely reflected the Legislature’s wishes. The map the Courts drew was actually a “compromise” map originally drawn by the state’s Republican Attorney General which only one of the plaintiffs had agreed was a fair compromise.

    The majority-minority law certainly has helped Democrats in Texas, because there are a minimum number of seats that almost certainly are going to Democrats (there is only one majority-minority seat in Texas that is a swing seat, and there was controversy over whether it actually qualified as a majority-minority seat as it was majority-minority voter registration, but Anglo voters were consistently the majority in actual turnout).

    Every single Democrat elected to Congress in the 2010 and 2012 elections from Texas was elected in a majority-minority seat (the last to have a majority Anglo seat, Chet Edwards, was turned out of office in 2010, ironically by a Latino Republican), though three of the Democrats elected by largely minority constituents are Anglo men (Beto O’Rourke, Gene Green, and Lloyd Doggett). The Democrats’ 12/36 seats is less than the party’s 41.4% in the Presidential election would have merited (15 of 36), but probably substantially more than the GOP could have drawn if they could have ignored race and simply constructed partisan-gerrymandered maps.

    There were only 2 seats of the 36 where the 2nd place party got even 40% of the vote: TX-14, a district with no incumbent, where a popular Democrat who had previously represented much of the district in Congress got 44.6% to the GOP nominee’s 53.5%, but that with any other Democratic nominee would likely have been a blowout GOP win; and TX-23, where a Latino Democratic challenger unseated a Latino Republican incumbent 50.3-45.5 in a district that is at least nominally a majority-Latino district (but which may not be based on turnout).

    It’s hard to say how Texas contributes to spurious GOP majorities because the Texas Secretary of State doesn’t report votes cast in uncontested elections (though it may be possible to find them on the county elections websites for some races), and because 34 of the 36 districts were so lopsided.


  18. @15, I did not use the language of ‘neutral commissions’. I spoke of impartial, professional and nonpartisan commissions. Mere duopoly commissions would not meet that standard.


  19. Alan @15, I agree with Ed @16 with respect to election administration and procedures, but I think our current Supreme Court majority would treat federal control of redistricting under Article I, Section 4 as a close call.

    Also, I don’t think Article I covers the conduct of state and local elections. As a practical matter, when these are consolidated with Presidential and Congressional elections, they are conducted by the same people using the same procedures. But they don’t have to be consolidated, and some are not.


  20. “The Democrats’ 12/36 seats is less than the party’s 41.4% in the Presidential election would have merited (15 of 36), but probably substantially more than the GOP could have drawn if they could have ignored race and simply constructed partisan-gerrymandered maps.”

    Once you use single member districts, the party with the largest share of the vote almost always wins a much larger percentage of the districts than its percentage of the popular vote (the ratio has been worked out as the cube rule but in practice the ratio varies). This happens even if the districts are drawn in a non-partisan manner. This is actually one of the rationales behind using multimember districts and proportional representation, that the results single member districts no matter how well drawn will never match up well with the votes cast for each party!

    This is a long winded way of saying that with single member districts, a party that gets beaten by a 17% margin but which manages to win a third of the seats is actually not doing that badly. The pressure to draw majority-minority districts probably gave the Democrats a couple of seats in Texas they wouldn’t have won otherwise.

    That said, its worth keeping in mind that politicians don’t like running in unwinnable seats, and those that do will have problems raising money. This is particularly the case with the U.S., with its large election expenses, large population districts, and a tradition of localism strong enough to discourage parties from running newly minted party hacks in unwinnable seats on the other side of the country, a sort of political version of the A baseball that is used in other countries and at least ensures decent candidates in every seat. Since gerrymandering definitely proliferates safe seats, with commission-drawn maps you would predict that the losing party would start drawing more votes in most districts. It would looking to see if that happens in California.


    • Regarding votes:seats ratios under FPTP, as Ed says, “the ratio has been worked out as the cube rule but in practice the ratio varies.”

      Indeed, as Taagepera and Shugart (1989) pointed out, it varies with the number of districts and size of the electorate. I have summarized this here before. In fact, I have a whole block devoted to applying this.

      In the US House as of 2012, having about 108M voters and 435 districts yields an expected exponent of 3.04. In other words, theoretically the relationship should be almost precisely the cube law. A quick look at some House elections over the past decade suggests that the actual exponent tends to be considerably less than that. In other words, US House elections are more proportional than expected, given FPTP and the relatively small assembly size (for the electorate size). Obviously, however, that is not the case when there is a spurious majority!


  21. In the main entry, I point out that I have not aggregated House votes for recent elections.

    If we can go by Wikipedia, here is what we get:

    2006, D 52.0, R 44.1
    2008, D 52.9, R 42.4
    2010, R 51.4, D 44.8

    That gives us third-party/independent percentages of 3.9, 4.7, 3.8.

    However, note that the 2008 figures do not match what I reported above. Again, we have discrepancies in the reporting of votes!

    It does appear, however, that each of these three elections resulted in a majority of the vote–the actual vote, not the mythical two-party vote.


  22. MMS @25:

    US House elections are more proportional than expected, given FPTP and the relatively small assembly size.

    Presumably because districts are more homogeneous than the model assumes. Cf. Seats and Votes, page 187:

    In the absence of any information to the contrary, the degree of clustering of like-minded voters must be assumed to be the same on all levels (that is, a magnified piece of a political adherence map would look like the original map).

    This is clearly not true in the U.S. My questions are (1) is there an agreed upon measure of the degree of clustering, and (2) an extension of the votes-to-seats model that incorporates degree of clustering as measured by (1).

    It seems to me that the predictions of such a model (if it exists) could provide a baseline against which to measure the effects of gerrymandering. I’m not suggesting this would be easy. For one thing, how do you measure clustering of like-minded voters without using (presumably gerrymandered) district boundaries? But if such an analysis were possible, it would go a long way toward refuting the pundits who want the public to believe that gerrymandering is the whole problem.


  23. @27 Bear in mind that many of those pundits actually believe that gerrymandering is the whole problem, just as many of them endlessly repeat that the electoral college forces candidates to campaign in a range of states when clearly it limits the campaign only to marginal states.

    The simpler argument, and one easy to fit into the Madisonian framework is that while gerrymandering is a second order issue, it simply makes no sense to have politicians electing themselves by drawing their own boundaries.

    You could go on to point out that even independent boundary commissions, although good in themselves, cannot always prevent a reversed majority.

    Going back to a point I made up thread, the Democrats’ popular vote is almost certainly reduced by the risible machinations that result in people waiting 7 hours to vote. That in its turn is a product of a localised election administration where (even apart from deliberate suppression efforts) local revenues determine what gets spent on delivering the ballot to the voters.

    It seems to me a fairly basic principle that citizens should have the same opportunity to vote across the country. That requires uniform standards and uniform resources.


  24. “The simpler argument, and one easy to fit into the Madisonian framework is that while gerrymandering is a second order issue, it simply makes no sense to have politicians electing themselves by drawing their own boundaries.”

    The partisan effect of gerrymandering in the US is overstated (though things might be different if one party had a free hand nationwide). Each cycle at the most it will give a party an additional 6 to 12 seats it otherwise wouldn’t win.

    What gerrymandering does do is to cut down on competitive seats, and give additional protection to incumbents. The protection is not just given against opponents of the rival party but to primary rivals. One effect is that by splitting communities and fragmenting communities of interest, it makes a challenge to an incumbent more difficult because much of each district is random add-ons that are out of the loop politically from the population center of the district. Gerrymandering is often most effective by ensuring that a particular city or area is split amongst districts, in each of which the majority of voters come from some other city or area, in some cases at the other end of the state.

    The reason I’ve noticed this is that I grew up in New York City. New York State has a tradition of bipartisan gerrymandering for congressional districts, but the lines usually vie with New Jersey’s for being the most convoluted in the nation. Of the eleven districts in New York city, the Republicans could win at the most two under a map produced by a neutral commission.* However, the New York City lines have always been unusually convoluted to make sure that each Congressperson gets enough of the right ethnic groups. And though there are other reasons involved, its generally known that once a politician gets to the House in New York City, they have the job for life.

    *The two are the Staten Island based district they already hold, plus a district based in working class Jewish neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn that are now used to fill out two majority African-American districts based in central Brooklyn. An independent commission would likely prefer to keep the current arrangement and keep the two bare majority African-American districts, but its a close call.


  25. Even in Australia, where gerrymandering is only a bad memory and incumbents have very limited input, single-member districts produce weird results at the state level.

    The 2010 federal election returned 21 Coalition, 8 Labor and 1 Independent. The 2PP was 55.14/44.86 in Queensland.

    At the same election, for half the Senate, where each state is a single electorate under STV, Queensland returned 3 Coalition, 2 Labor, 1 Green.

    The same electors, voting on the same day and the same issues.


  26. How have the current numbers been treating California, which just adopted Louisiana-style jungle primaries but obviously at 52 districts rather than 6 has a much bigger influence on the total?


  27. Daily Kos Elections, a site which does number crunching pretty well, reports that the Democrats took 50.5% of the aggregate popular vote for the House of Representatives in 2008 2012, but 46% of the seats. So the result was a spurious majority. They are saying that the only other such instance in American history was in 1996.


  28. I meant 2012. I was tired when I typed the earlier comment.

    Anyway, the numbers shift depending on how you account for uncontested races, but its clear that in 2012 the Democrats at least won a plurality of the popular vote.


  29. So, we can see the 2012 curves yet?

    It’s 2013, so presumably all recounts are done and the new bums are about to be seated?


    • I am not even sure we have final data on US House contests yet, but if someone has seen it, please direct me to it.

      No promises on being able to do the graphical analysis, given all that is on my plate now. It would depend on how much cleaning and organizing the data required before I could run the commands.


  30. I usually go to Wikipedia for the most authoritative updates for election data, assuming that the data will eventually wind up being derived from the most authoritative underlying source. Their posted figures for the US House of Representatives elections for 2012, as of January 6th, 2013, are derived from a Cook Political Report article that itself is dated to December 4th, 2012 (while I discuss the presidential race in this post, the Cook Political Report is used as a source for the House popular vote only, Cook also seems to be the source for 2008 as well).

    There has been similar work done on the partisan Democrat but wonkish website Daily Kos Elections that may well be more accurate, but it is in line with the Cook Political Report figures.

    Anyway, the Wikipedia article shows the Democrats accruing 49.2% of the vote, about 59 million votes, for a total of 201 seats; and the Republicans accruing 48% of the vote, about 58 million votes, for a total of 234 seats. They report a swing to Democratic House candidates of 3.9% from 2010. Democrats in nationwide aggregate ran 2% behind Obama and Republican house candidates in aggregate ran 0.8% ahead of Romney.

    Compared to the 2008 House of Representatives elections, the last one to coincide to a presidential election, there was a swing of 4.7% to the Republicans in 2012. In 2008 the Democrats won 257 seats and the Republicans 178. Democrats that year ran in nationwide aggregate exactly even with Obama, and Republicans ran 2.3% behind McCain.

    On the presidential race, Obama seems to have polled about three million fewer votes in 2012 than in 2008, and Romney polled just over a million fewer votes than McCain, as turnout declined from 61.6% to 58.2%. There was a 1.7% swing against Obama. Fringe or minor party candidates increased their share of the vote by 0.4%. The strongest 2012 minor party candidate, former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson, barely missed breaking the 1% barrier.

    These appear to be the most up to date figures.


  31. Thanks for that Ed. But what we’re looking for (in the chart) are not national aggregates, but distribution of vote shares in each district, vote efficiency, etc.


  32. Pingback: Rural v. Urban Representation and the Quality of Democracy

  33. Pingback: Why Democrats should be nicer to The Squad: A lesson from New Zealand – voteguy.com

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