Does gerrymandering cause gridlock in Congress?

Image Source: US Census

Image Source: US Census

By Marian Currinder

Last week, David Wasserman and his Gerrymandering Project colleagues released The Atlas of Redistricting, a massive undertaking that involved drawing six alternative congressional district maps for the entire country. Each map emphasized a different value (encouraging competitive elections, maximizing majority-minority districts, etc.) By changing district boundaries to emphasize different values, Wasserman and his colleagues demonstrate how the makeup of the U.S. House could be radically altered without a single voter moving.

Gerrymandering is blamed for the lack of competitive elections and for the fact that more members today sit at the ideological extremes. But what about congressional gridlock? Can we blame gerrymandering for that? We asked David Wasserman for his opinion.

Congressional gridlock is often blamed on gerrymandering. Why is that?

DW: Gerrymandering is an easy target. It's not hard to poke fun at some of the most bizarre patchworks of precincts ever woven to elect members of Congress. So, while its role is often exaggerated, I view it as one of many sources of congressional gridlock. In our project at FiveThirtyEight, I found that the main bias in today's congressional maps is more anti-competitive than it is pro-Republican (although anti-competitiveness helps Republicans more). The partisans who draw maps don't like uncertainty and see drawing safe districts as a way to save money, so we end up with a lot of districts that are ideological cul de sacs, where members are only concerned about pleasing their party's base. Hence, gridlock.

How do you explain the corresponding rise in more ideologically extreme members being elected to Congress and less being accomplished (fewer bills passed) in Congress?

DW: The main driver of gridlock, in my view, is increasingly polarized states and districts. And the main driver of increasingly polarized states and districts isn't gerrymandering (note that the Senate can't be gerrymandered), it's self-sorting. The Cook Political Report has measured that in the past 20 years, the number of competitive House seats has fallen from 164 to 72, a 56 percent decline. But 83 percent of that decline was attributable to voters' increased clustering in like-minded neighborhoods, and just 17 percent of that decline was a result of redistricting. That's allowed primaries to replace November as the most important elections in most House and Senate races, and low-turnout primary races are easy prey for highly ideological outside groups. As a result, candidates race to the extremes and that's unsustainable for governance.

You’ve said that, “if I had a magic wand, here's what I'd draw - a nonpartisan, compact map that follows county/city borders & ignores politics/race.” Why?

DW: After studying redistricting for close to 15 years, I've become convinced that trying to establish a legal standard for the proper role of race and partisanship in redistricting is a futile exercise. Courts have struggled with race for decades, and still haven't determined a bright line for what constitutes a district where minorities have the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. And, although majority-minority districts were once essential for electing non-white representatives in many places, most of today's non-white members of Congress represent districts with no racial majority or a white majority. Similarly, the "efficiency gap" metric (now before the Supreme Court in Gill v. Whitford) as a tool to detect partisan gerrymandering is also problematic because it has a hard time distinguishing between true gerrymandering and the effects of sorting. In my view, redistricting should be a race/partisan blind, bureaucratic function that follows existing lines (counties, cities) to maximize the ease of election administration.

What kind of Congress would this map produce?

DW: According to our "compact/borders" simulation, such a map might increase the number of competitive House seats from 72 to 99, which would modestly increase the number of members with an incentive to work across the aisle. But a move to more compact districts would have other health benefits for democracy. For example, districts that are logically drawn around counties and cities rather than snaking from one end of a state to another make it easier for constituents and members of the local media to engage with representatives, promoting accountability.

How does this map compare to the map that would increase the number of "competitive" House districts (by Cook Political’s definition) from 72 to 242? 

DW: Our "compact" maps modestly boost the number of competitive seats, but our "competitive" maps do that on steroids. We proved that it would be possible to more than triple the number of competitive House seats by connecting Democratic and Republican-leaning precincts to the greatest extent possible. The downside is that it required conscious, pro-competitive gerrymandering in many places and the resulting maps weren't especially compact. 

What is the biggest myth about gerrymandering that you’d like to dispel?

DW: One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear people say that "sophisticated new computer technology" has driven gerrymandering to new extremes. In reality, the technology used in redistricting has been pretty much the same since the late 1980s. What's changed is that Americans have self-sorted and live in closer proximity to like-minded people than they used to (since 1992, the percentage of voters living in "landslide" counties where either presidential candidate won by at least 20 points has risen from 38 percent to 61 percent, and virtually no county boundaries have changed). When Americans have pre-sorted themselves, it's easier than ever for mapmakers to draw extremely red or extremely blue districts. That trend, and not technology, has super-charged gerrymandering's effectiveness. 

Marian Currinder is a senior fellow in governance at the R Street Institute and edits LegBranch.com.