Topics: House of Representatives

Don't blame the government shutdown on redistricting

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Congress,David Freddoso,Columnists,House of Representatives,Republican Party,Democratic Party,2012 Elections,2014 Elections,Analysis,Government Shutdown

Amid the current government shutdown, pundits are looking for something to blame for what wrongly seems to them like an unprecedented ideological standoff.

Various writers and even President Obama have blamed partisan redistricting for creating a more “polarized” atmosphere in which congressmen are less less vulnerable to voters who think differently.

The Wisconsin State Journal's editorial board was not alone in blaming the current situation on “the rigged redistricting process in Wisconsin and most other states.”

The Week's Jon Terbush singled out states like Texas, where several Republican congressmen represent impenetrably safe seats.

But in an excellent piece for The New Republic last week, Nate Cohn put this false impression to bed -- as he has done before. Cohn noted that those decrying gerrymandering as the cause of our ills have their argument backwards: If anything, partisan redistricting encourages the parties to avoid insulating themselves too much.

By concentrating too many of their own voters in one place, a party reduces the number of seats it can win. Thus, partisan redistricting should actually encourage more moderation — and in true gerrymanders, like the one Republicans created in Pennsylvania, it has done just that.

In reality, those blood-Red Texas districts — where Mitt Romney beat President Obama by 50 points — exist as a matter of geographic necessity, not gerrymandering.

As Cohn put it, “[O]ne would need to gerrymander Texas to make competitive districts” — and Republicans would do it if they could to give themselves more winnable seats.

Partisan redistricting plays a role in shaping the House, but its effects are exaggerated. It's likely that state boundaries play a larger role than district boundaries do.

To see how, take a proportional system as our alternative. If every U.S. state had adopted the d'Hondt method (used in Spain and some three dozen other democracies) to award House seats proportionally in 2012, then Republicans still would have won a House majority, despite losing the national popular vote for the House.

Based on each state's total House vote, I calculate 224 GOP seats instead of 233. (The calculation isn't perfect — for example, Republicans failed to contest three House districts in Massachusetts, so they probably would have done better than the two House seats this system would award them.)

At worst, gerrymandering swayed no more than nine net House seats in the 2012 election out of 435. And we can't even say for sure that the discrepancy is all attributable to partisan chicanery.

Also skewing the results are state and federal redistricting rules concerning compactness, contiguity, communities of interest, municipal and county boundaries, and racial minorities.

A proportional system undoes gerrymanders and thus would have helped Democrats in 2012. But the other edge of this sword is that it tends to re-enfranchise political minorities in large one-party states, most of which are Democratic (think New York, California, Maryland and Washington).

It would be hard to create a Republican House district in Massachusetts today even if you tried, but a proportional system does it automatically.

Republicans hold zero seats in New England today, but such a system would guarantee them at least six or seven, no matter how far right the party goes.

The current system also has qualitative benefits that we take for granted. If your main concern is strict partisanship, isn't it better to elect someone who can afford to put your community's concerns ahead of party ideology without automatically losing his job?

If you think party and primary election discipline is causing the current conflagration, know that the “fairer” system would exclude mavericks and moderates as the parties purged them from candidate lists.

So be careful what you wish for. Our system isn't really unfair on aggregate, and there are a lot fewer “fairer” alternatives than meets the eye.

David Freddoso, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).
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