June 23, 1985
"Republicans Run an Uphill Race to Control the House"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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IN 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry helped carve out a contorted
election district in northeastern Massachusetts that resembled a salamander. The
event contributed a new word for a perennial ill of electoral government: the
In a gerrymander, election district lines are drawn strategically, shall we
say, to protect incumbents or to discriminate against the minority party or race.
Imagine a square state, for example, where the northern 60 percent of the population
belongs to one party and the southern 40 percent to another party. If the majority
is ruthless enough, it will simply draw vertical district lines. Every district
will vote 60-40 for the majority party. The minority will be gerrymandered out
of the legislature altogether.
Republicans feel they are being gerrymandered in the House of Representatives,
and they point to November 1984 election statistics to make their case. House
Democratic candidates received 52.6 percent of the popular vote for all House
candidates (leaving aside splinter parties), but have 58.1 percent of the House
The Democrats have a 253-182 advantage in the current House. If they had only
a 52.6 percent majority -- reflecting their popular vote -- they would have only
a 229-206 advantage. For Republicans, these results are prima facie evidence of
a 24-seat gerrymander.
But the case isn't that simple. The House of Representatives has an inherent
bias toward giving a majority party a larger proportion of the legislature than
of the popular vote.
Take the state of Washington, with its eight congressional seats, as an example.
In 1984, Democratic House candidates from Washington won 55.4 percent of the total
vote. If the Washington Democrats were 55.4 percent of the House delegation, they
would receive 4.4 seats. But of course, fractions are not an option. They must
either have four seats or five, and neither number is wholly satisfactory.
If Washington splits its seats 4-4, then the Republicans will have parity in
the House delegation even though they represent a minority of the state, which
violates the principle of majority rule. But if the split is 5-3, then the Democrats
have 62.5 percent of the House seats with only 55 percent of the popular vote.
When the popular vote can't match the seats available, as blind chance will
often dictate, then the majority has a perfectly good claim to taking that swing
or marginal seat. After all, the minority party receives all the seats to which
they are clearly entitled.
In contrast with Washington, examine the Massachusetts results. Democrats won
69.7 percent of the House votes, which entitled them to 7.7 of Massachusetts'
11 House seats. But they won 10 seats. In Massachusetts, Democrats didn't just
take advantage of their majority status to take the eighth seat, the swing seat,
but took two additional seats as well. The minority Republicans are unfairly excluded
by the way district lines are drawn, and they have a right to cry "gerrymander."
Does a national gerrymander work against Republicans in the House? The answer
lies in how the overall 24-seat Democratic advantage is explained.
If it is due to states like Washington, where an inevitable dilemma was resolved
for the majority, then the differential is inherent in the way House members are
elected. If it is due to states like Massachusetts, where the majority party went
beyond taking the swing seat and took at least one more seat as well, the Republicans
have a right to complain.
That question can now be addressed based on the official statistics of the
last Congressional election compiled by Benjamin Guthrie, the clerk of the House
of Representatives, and released last month.
The Democrats won 15 more seats than their percentage of the popular vote clearly
entitled them to, as in Massachusetts where they won two beyond the swing seat.
This resulted from gerrymanders in 10 states: Massachusetts, California, Florida,
Illinois, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia. Only
Utah is gerrymandered to benefit Republicans, and it only gave them one extra
The remaining 10 seats of the 24-seat advantage are from a Washington-style
bias toward overrepresenting the majority in the House. In three-quarters of the
states, the majority party (usually Democrat) has a higher fraction of House seats
than of the popular vote.
In some states, the minority got the swing seat. But generally, the popular
vote would have entitled the majority party to only a small fraction more of a
House seat than it actually got. Mississippi is typical. Based on popular vote,
the majority Democrats deserved 3.08 out of five seats, but the majority reasonably
ended up with three, rather than pushing to four out of five.
More than a quarter of the House seats the Democrats won nationally in gerrymandered
states were won in California. Republican House candidates won 50.5 percent of
the popular vote in 1984, but Democrats control the House delegation by 27-18.
The California Republicans deserve 22.7 House seats, at least four more than they
This conclusion is no surprise. The Mercury News commented editorially in September
1981, when Rep. Phil Burton proposed his gerrymander of the congressional districts,
that the plan would cut Republican House members from 21 to 17 while raising Democrats
from 22 to 28. Burton did a good and lasting job, if one appreciates a creative
synthesis of modern art and redistricting. Any majority-rule system balances on
a knife edge of 50-50 decisions. A system like the Electoral College or the House
that turns close popular votes into clear-cut decisions fills an important role
in helping society to accept the rule of majorities, even small majorities.
But there are clearly states -- like California -- where the Democrats have
taken advantage of past majorities and incumbency to stretch their numerical advantage
Republicans in a number of states, including California, have challenged redistricting
plans in courts, on ballot initiatives, and before state legislatures. These statistics
tend to show that despite the obvious stain of partisan self- interest in their
arguments, they have a credible case.
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