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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 gerrymander.

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 seats.

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 seat.

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 won.

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 past fairness.

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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