Ever since the 2012 elections, one of the great political/election nerd debates has raged over the topic of whether the Republican majority in the House (which came despite the fact that voters nationally had cast more votes for Democratic candidates than Republican ones) was owed to gerrymandering, or owed to natural geographic sorting.
If you missed out on that debate, the basic arguments are as follows:
- The "It's All About Gerrymandering" Team: More voters preferred Democrats, but the 2010 Republican midterm sweep gave the GOP control over enough state legislatures to generate electoral district maps to freeze out the Democrats. Therefore, states that are basically politically competitive, or even Democratic-leaning, wind up sending heavily Republican delegations to Congress, as well as cementing their state legislative majorities with similar gerrymanders.
- The "It's All About Geographic Sorting" Team: Groups of similar ethnicities tend to cluster together, creating extremely Democratic pockets, particularly in some of the larger urbanized states where the screams about gerrymandering were the loudest. The Republican majority is owed to this tendency of African-American and Latino voters to reside in clusters, and not to any nefarious use of creative mapmaking.
Last summer, I explored this debate at the congressional level, and came to what I still believe is the obvious conclusion—both arguments help to explain the political lay of the land. Geographic clustering is real, has been around for decades, and does explain why the "national vote" for the House is ... for all intents and purposes ... irrelevant. But gerrymandering did save some seats for the GOP, just as it shored up others that could be vulnerable with even a slight Democratic tailwind. One would have to be a GOP cheerleader extraordinaire to suggest otherwise.
Downballot, however, there is an even darker component to this debate. There is a legitimate subversion of electoral democracy taking place at the state legislative level, where we have increasingly seen what should be cycles of competitive elections being downgraded to mere coronations, with scores of seats going with little or even no opposition.
Here, I believe, gerrymandering absolutely does play a role. Follow me past the jump for the explanation.
Last December, I wrote about the need for Democrats to make every effort to secure nominees in every available electoral battle.
Four months later, with several states having closed their filing deadlines for November, we can see that the ability to secure said nominees, at the state legislative level, is lacking.
In Texas, one of the earliest filing deadlines, Democrats left over 50 Republican seats unchallenged in November. More recently, in North Carolina, Democrats left almost half of the GOP House delegation unchallenged. Now, as it happens, the GOP left a huge percentage of the Democratic delegation without opposition, as well. But when you already hold an outsized majority (77-43), that matters a good deal less than it does for the challengers.
The size of that GOP legislative majority, given that North Carolina has been among the closest states at the presidential level in the past two cycles, might surprise some. But not only is that majority a large one, it is also, courtesy of the 2011 redistricting orchestrated by a smaller GOP majority (and not subject, because of the quirks of state law, to a veto by the then-Democratic governor), an immovable one.
North Carolina is, pretty much beyond debate, the most extreme gerrymander currently in effect.
Consider the following statistic, which was generated by examining our own DKE Presidential results-by-LD database: The state of North Carolina has 170 legislative districts (50 in the state Senate, 120 in the state House of Representatives). Of those 170 districts, only 23 of them were carried by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in 2012 with less than 55 percent of the vote (for our purposes here, we will use the "less than 55 percent" metric to define a marginally competitive district).
Of course, DKE fans know that, at the federal level, it is even more obscene, as none of the state's 13 congressional districts falls within those parameters.
However, the state legislature's lack of competitiveness is still pretty stunning. To put it another way, only 16 percent of North Carolina's state Senate districts, and 13.3 percent of their state House districts, fall within this rather minimal definition of competitiveness, despite being among the two most competitive states in the last two presidential elections.
By way of contrast, take an example of another competitive presidential state where state legislative districts, in contrast to North Carolina, are done by an independent commission: Iowa.
In Iowa, 52 percent of state Senate districts fall within that "55/55" range, while 41 percent of the state's House districts fall within the boundaries of "competitiveness." Right away, however, I can hear the "geographic sorting" crowd screaming: "It's Iowa! Wow, Singiser, could you have picked a whiter, more homogeneous state?"
Well, yeah, I could have picked these guys, but I really didn't want to sift through the numbers for over 200 legislative districts.
However, let's look at another commission-drawn state, which could easily meet, or even exceed, the ethnic clustering tendencies of North Carolina: my own home state of California. California's two legislative chambers are almost twice as likely to hold competitive districts than North Carolina (27.5 percent of the state Senate, 22.5 percent of the state Assembly). What makes that more telling, of course, is the fact that California was an absolute blowout at the presidential level.
North Carolina's gerrymander was a carpet bombing. Some gerrymanders, however, are surgical strikes. A great example of that—Wisconsin. On paper, Wisconsin looks pretty competitive: nearly 40 percent of the state's 132 legislative districts fall within the "55/55" competitiveness threshold. However, when you dig a little deeper, you realize that the GOP legislature was fairly clever. Of the 37 state House districts, for example, 31 of them (84 percent) went by that rather modest margin to Mitt Romney. What's more: Virtually all of them also went for Tommy Thompson in the 2012 Senate race against Democrat Tammy Baldwin, and by almost the same margins. In other words, one can expect to see a lot of 52-55 percent GOP legislative wins come November, if the GOP voters in the Badger State continue this relatively consistent voting pattern.
So, why does this all matter?
It matters on a couple of different levels. On a moral level, it is upsetting that so many incumbents (Democratic and Republican) are getting free passes. Color me old-fashioned, but I think the purpose of regular elections is to compel our elected officials to justify their continued stewardship of our levers of power. When they get free rides because of the one-sided nature of their districts, we lose a critical level of accountability.
But, in the current state of affairs, even nominally competitive districts suffer. In the states that have filed early, we have seen incumbents in a number of districts that look competitive on paper remain unopposed. It is only supposition, but a plausible explanation for this could be the fact that ambitious souls may have no hunger for making the sacrifices necessary to run a competitive legislative campaign, only to be ensured life for the foreseeable future in a deep legislative minority. Consider: In several states that are considered competitive at the national level, the GOP enjoys a 10-plus seat majority in one or both chambers. Among those states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and the aforementioned duo of North Carolina and Wisconsin. One has to imagine that the current landscape does make it more difficult for Democrats to recruit quality candidates, just as the outsized Democratic majorities probably stifle GOP recruiting in places like California or Illinois.
Thankfully, there is still no shortage of competitive state legislative chambers that will be up for grabs come November (and if you are interested in knowing where and how to help, the DLCC is an invaluable resource). And that is a good thing, whether or not it is the Democrats or the Republicans defending their narrow majorities. Competition is the ultimate accountability in politics. When it diminishes, the consequences can be pretty profound.