This week the indefatigable Rachel Maddow explained how in the 2012 election Republicans in five states were able to score a trifecta: They snagged the governorship and both houses of the state legislature despite losing the popular vote and the presidential election to the Democrats. Republicans owe these victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and even Pennsylvania to the remapping of electoral districts two years before.
Republicans scored big in 2010, gaining an advantage that comes along only once every 10 years. After a new census is taken in the first year of each decade, states have a constitutional mandate to redraw their electoral districts in order to reflect changes in the population. The winning party may then determine the shape and composition of the new districts.
More often than not, the redistricting devolves into gerrymandering, which is the reshaping of electoral districts by the majority party in ways that all but guarantee future victories. Politicians achieve this by “packing” and “cracking.”
They pack opposition voters into a single district that their rivals would win anyway so that many of the opposition votes will be “wasted.” Democrats, for example, tend to concentrate in cities and Republicans in rural areas. Where the number of rural districts greatly outnumbers the urban ones, Democrats may win a large majority of the popular vote but nevertheless lose the election because they are outnumbered in terms of districts.
Cracking also works: the party drawing the map splits up the opposition into several districts where they will be in the minority. Either way, as long as the makeup of the population doesn’t change much, incumbents will be reelected and competition for other seats will be greatly reduced. The resulting electoral boundaries often follow no geographic logic at all.
An example of the “cracking” style of gerry-mandering. The urban (and mostly liberal Democratic) concentration of Columbus, Ohio, located at the center of the map in Franklin County, is split into three parts, each segment attached to—and outnumbered by—largely conservative suburbs that vote Republican.
In the state of Michigan, voters chose Obama by almost 10 points over Romney, and in the race for the state house, Democrats won 54 percent of the vote. Even so, the Michigan State House ended up with a Republican majority: 59 vs 51— almost 54 percent for the losers of the popular vote. Despite winning more than half of the popular vote, Democrats will occupy only five of the state’s 14 congressional seats.
Another example is Virginia, where Obama won by three points. In the contest for the U.S. House, Republicans won by a slim margin of 50.9 percent, but 72.7 percent of Virginia’s congressmen and women will be Republican (8 vs 3).
Similarly, Ohio Republicans won 52 percent of the vote for the U.S. House, but will have 75 percent (three times as many!) of the Ohio representation (12 vs 4).
In the entire House the GOP won 49 percent of the votes, but 54 percent of the seats.
Continue to Part 2 (less wonky)