How important is gerrymandering? and How to most effectively use one’s political energy?

February 15, 2017

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Andy Stein writes:

I think a lot of people (me included) would be interested to read an updated blog post from you on gerrymandering, even if your conclusions haven’t changed at all from your 2009 blog post [see also here]. Lots of people are talking about it now and Obama seems like he’ll be working on it this year and there’s a Tufts summer school course where they’re training quantitative PhDs to be expert witnesses. Initially, I thought it would be fun to attend, but as best I can tell from the limited reading I’ve done, it doesn’t seem like gerrymandering itself has that big of an effect. It seems to be that because Democrats like cities, even compact districts favor Republicans.

I’d also be curious to read a post from you on the most effective ways to use one’s polical energy for something productive. The thing I’m trying to learn more about now is how I can help work on improving our criminal justice system on the state level, since state politics seem more manageable and less tribal than national politics.

Here’s what I wrote in 2009:

Declining competitiveness in U.S. House elections cannot be explained by gerrymandering. I’m not saying that “gerrymandering” is a good thing—I’d prefer bipartisan redistricting or some sort of impartial system—but the data do not support the idea that redistricting is some sort of incumbent protection plan or exacerbator of partisan division.

In addition, political scientists have frequently noted that Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly polarized in the Senate as well as in the House, even though Senate seats are not redistricted.

And here’s how Alan Abramowitz, Brad Alexander, and Matthew Gunning put it:

The increasing correlation among district partisanship, incumbency, and campaign spending means that the effects of these three variables tend to reinforce each other to a greater extent than in the past. The result is a pattern of reinforcing advantages that leads to extraordinarily uncompetitive elections.

I added:

I’m not saying that gerrymandering is always benign; there are certainly some places where it has been used to make districts with unnecessarily high partisan concentrations. But, in aggregate, that’s not what has happened, at least according to our research.

But that was then, etc., so it’s reasonable for Stein to ask what’s happened in the eight years since. The short answer is that I’ve not studied the problem. I’ve read some newspaper articles suggesting that a few states have major gerrymanders in the Republican party’s favor, but that’s no substitute for a systematic analysis along the lines of our 1994 paper. My guess (again, without looking at the data) is that gerrymandering in some states is currently giving a few seats to the Republicans in the House of Representatives but that it does not explain the larger pattern of polarization in Congress that we’ve seen in the past few years with party-line or near-party-line votes on health care policy, confirmations for cabinet nominees, etc.

That said, the redistricting system in the United States is inherently partisan, so it’s probably a good idea for activists to get involved on both sides so that the fight in every state is balanced.

Regarding your other question, on effective ways to use one’s polical energy for something productive: I have no idea. Working on particular legislative battles can have some effect, also direct personal contact is supposed to make a difference: I guess that can involve directly talking with voters or political activists, or getting involved in activities and organizations that involve people talking with each other about politics. The other big thing is legislative primary election campaigns. It think that most primary elections are not seriously contested, and primaries can sometimes seem like a sideshow—but powerful incumbent politicians typically started off their careers by winning primary elections. So your primary campaign today could determine the political leaders of the future. And there’s also the indirect effect of influencing incumbent legislators who don’t want to lose in the primary.

All this counsel could apply to activists anywhere on the political spectrum. That said, I’d like to think of this as positive-sum advice in that (a) I hope that if activists on both sides are involved in redistricting, this will help keep the entire system fair, and (b) my advice regarding political participation should, if applied to both sides, keep politicians more responsive to the voters, which I think would be a net gain, even when some of these voters hold positions with which I disagree.

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