In the first episode they look at Wisconsin, a Republican gerrymander. Democrats won the majority of the congressional vote in 2012 and still only won 3 of the 9 districts. The Wisconsin map doesn’t look that much like a gerrymander. Two of the Democratic districts are fairly compact and, to some extent, reflect Democratic self-packing, something that is mentioned in the podcast. Republicans won the three closest districts by 12 points apiece. So it’s possible that even if the GOP hadn’t gerrymandered the state Republicans might’ve also won 6 seats.
Democrats sued because they felt that winning a majority of the vote entitled them to more than 3 seats. The case is before the Supreme Court.
They then went to North Carolina. North Carolina was a very ugly looking Republican gerrymander that resulted in Republicans winning 10 of 13 seats despite Democrats winning a majority of the vote. Democrats sued that the map was a racial gerrymander. They won. So Republicans redrew the districts to comply with the court and drew a gerrymander that wasn’t nearly as ugly. The GOP won 53% of the vote in 2016 and still won 10 of 13 seats. The map is still a Republican gerrymander designed to crack and pack Democrats. It just doesn’t look as much like one.
The central premise here is that Democrats aren’t winning congressional districts proportional to their vote totals.
The podcast didn’t feature any Democratic controlled states like Massachusetts and Maryland, ugly maps that give Democrats a disproportional share of the seats.
They go to the controversial Arizona map. These were drawn by a commission where an independent is supposed to be the deciding vote. The independent Colleen Mathis is married to someone heavily involved with the Democratic party. Mathis dismisses the idea that she might favor Democrats. She can think for herself! Um… They wouldn’t let Mathis serve on the jury if her husband was trial, although I’m guessing that Mathis would argue that she should be because she thinks for herself.
The maps were supposed to maximize competitive districts. So Mathis and the Democrats packed Republicans into 4 districts in order to make 3 others competitive. They weren’t competitive. In 2012 Democrats took all 3. So Democrats won more districts despite losing the popular vote 54%-46%. Mathis points out that Republicans did win 1 of the 3 districts in 2014. So the districts were fair! What she doesn’t mention was that 2014 was a massive Republican wave and that Republicans won that district by 130 votes in a recount. So the best Republicans could do in 3 “competitive” districts was win 1 of them by a slim margin in a big Republican year.
538 concluded the Wisconsin and North Carolina maps were unfair to Democrats. I would’ve thought the Arizona result would lead to the conclusion that the map was unfair to Republicans, but 538 concludes that nothing was off.
I should add that the commissioner in Arizona admitted the districts were heavily gerrymandered in order to produce competitive elections. So if people are upset about gerrymandering they should be upset about these lines.
The fourth episode went to California, discussing how the 2001 maps were heavily gerrymandered to protect incumbents. A commission was set up to take politics out of the process. The podcast goes indepth about how Democrats tried to inject politics back into the line drawing, disguising it as concerned citizens looking out for their communities. Republicans stayed away.
Instead of presenting Republicans as virtuous for complying with the law and Democrats as cheaters, 538 presents Democrats as smart and Republicans as stupid. Republicans need to learn to game the system the way Democrats did. The commission’s goal was to remove partisanship from the equation and yet the podcast said they didn’t happen.
The podcast goes over how the lines are much better than 2001 and the elections were much more competitive. What they gloss over is that, as with Arizona, Democrats won ALL the competitive elections. Republicans were only able to get within 3 points in 7 districts in the massive 2014 Republican wave. Despite winning 42% of the vote the GOP got only 26% of the districts.
If districts are drawn where one party can’t win so called “swing” districts in a massive wave, then they aren’t competitive. They’re not swing districts. A swing district is one which each party wins during a decade, especially during a massive wave. Yet Republicans were only about to win one “swing” district in either Arizona or California during their best year and win that one by 130 votes.
The Cleveland Browns went 0-16, but they did lose 5 games by 4 points or less and a 6th game in overtime. No one would argue the Cleveland Browns were competitive.
Those that think gerrymandering is responsible for uncompetitive elections should really look at California. The districts aren’t gerrymandered yet even under the most generous terms 80-85% of the districts are safe. Of course, thus far, 100% of the districts have been safe and California has had less turnover than other states.
It’s possible that more districts will flip to California Democrats in 2018 and that’ll be a sign that shows how uncompetitive the maps are. Republicans get 42% of the statewide vote and now could get even less than 26% of the districts. That’s the ceiling?
The 538 gerrymandering series shows some things, although I’m not sure they realize what it shows. Yes, when one party has unfettered control that can lead to less competitive seats. I’m not sure they realize that they’ve shown that when the drawing is done by someone other than a partisan legislature that doesn’t lead to more competitive.
The Arizona commission was asked to make competitive districts. They said that’s what they did, but they drew districts that weren’t competitive. In California the commission wasn’t charged with making competitive but the hope was that not considering prior voting would make more competitive elections. It didn’t.
What the series showed was the quixotic nature of the complaints. People claim that gerrymandering needs to end to get competitive districts, but California shows us that won’t be the case. People claim that gerrymandering needs to continue to get competitive districts, like in Arizona. And yet the gerrymandering didn’t produce that either.
Both California and Arizona are as unfair to Republicans as Wisconsin and North Carolina are unfair to the Democrats. Yet Democrats want more states like California and Arizona, and have no problem with Maryland or Illinois. So perhaps it’s not about gerrymandering at all, but just Democrats wanting to win more elections.