Rep. Barney Frank’s claim about a should-be Democratic House majority

at 06:00 AM ET, 11/14/2012


(Adam Hunger/Reuters)

“In the House, we gained House seats. Unfortunately, the Republicans were able to gerrymander the House badly because they won the 2010 election. If we had run this House election by the same districts that had existed in 2010, we’d have a Democratic House now. We did very well in the Democratic Senate.”

— Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) comments during MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” Nov. 8, 2012

The 2012 election certainly didn’t end as planned for the GOP, which failed to win the presidency and lost seats in both chambers of Congress. Nonetheless, Republicans found a silver lining in the fact that they maintained control of the House, having won at least 233 seats as of Tuesday — 218 are needed for a majority.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) argued on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” that the election was a clean sweep for Democrats. He said the GOP wouldn’t have retained control of the House if it wasn’t for questionable redistricting by Republicans.

A reader brought Frank’s comments to our attention and asked whether the congressman’s claim alluded to “an incredible testament to the power of gerrymandering” or just amounted to “a huge whopper.”

Let’s examine the election results and the redistricting process to determine whether Frank has a point. Did Republicans rig the congressional map? Would Democrats have control if the election took place in 2010?

The Facts

Democrats earned more combined votes in the House elections this year, which means they won the popular vote for that chamber of Congress. For what it’s worth, this marks only the fourth time in the past century that the party with fewer overall votes came away with the House majority.

So, Democrats took more votes than Republicans in congressional elections. Why don’t they control the House?

Frank has a point that this has something to do with congressional redistricting. But evidence suggests that Democrats wouldn’t have won a majority in that chamber even if that process hadn’t occurred after 2010.

Furthermore, winning more votes doesn’t always mean winning the most seats. That’s because congressional districts aren’t perfectly equal in terms of population.

Let’s look at how redistricting works. Each state handles the process differently, and each has guidelines that the mappers have to follow. Most states use their legislatures to draw the lines, while a few rely on courts or special commissions.

Since populations shift, the redistricting process is repeated every 10 years, coinciding with the Census.

In theory, a state’s districts — as well as its congressional representatives — should accurately reflect its population and demographics. In practice, however, lawmakers can manipulate district lines to eliminate competition for House seats, with the majority party having an obvious advantage in how things turn out.

When lawmakers do the mapping, they often resort to “cracking” and “packing” to minimize the impact of voters who aren’t likely to support their party.

To clarify, cracking involves removing certain precincts from competitive districts and placing them in surrounding districts where they have less chance of influencing the outcome of a close election. This dilutes the impact of certain voting blocs. Surrounding districts absorb the precincts with no change in power, while the formerly competitive district becomes more of a sure thing for the state’s controlling party.

Packing involves cramming predictable precincts into a single district, thus consolidating votes that could help change the outcome in more competitive districts. This practice often results in gerrymandering, or creating odd shaped districts that meander — Illinois’s 4th District, for instance, is an earmuff-shaped district with a thin tract of territory connecting two Hispanic sections of Chicago.

A bit of historic reference: The Boston Gazette coined the term “gerrymander” after former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry created a congressional district that looked like a salamander in 1812.

Republicans have held majorities in more statehouses than Democrats since the 2010 election. As a result, the GOP controlled redistricting for 173 congressional districts, compared to just 44 for Democrat-led legislatures.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law analyzed the latest round of redistricting to project how it might affect the 2012 election. A report from the center estimated that the process put Republicans in a position to maintain 11 seats that might have become vulnerable under the pre-2010 map.

So, what does that mean in terms of Frank’s claim?

It takes 218 seats to win control of the House. Democrats have taken 195 seats, and seven races remain undecided.

Let’s give Frank every benefit of the doubt here and assume Democrats will win all seven races that are too close to call — even though Republicans hold a lead in two of those contests. We’ll also assume that Democrats could take back all 11 seats that leaned GOP after redistricting. That would give the party just 213 seats, which is still short of a House majority.

“Redistricting has something to do with the Republican House majority, but it doesn’t explain the whole picture,” said Sundeep Iyer, the Brennan Center’s principal quantitative analyst. “A lot of the Democratic disadvantage has to do with the geopolitics of how they’re distributed.”

Iyer noted that Democrats tend to congregate in urban areas, where they dominate either a cluster of geographically tiny districts or one or two big ones. Meanwhile, Republicans show up in large numbers in the remaining rural districts and the politically diverse suburbs, which can make the party competitive in more districts, he said.

“The geopolitical reality plays against Democrats when the vote is relatively even like it is now,” Iyer said.

We asked Frank to back up his claim that Democrats would have taken control of the House if Republicans hadn’t controlled so much of the redistricting process.

“I overestimated,” he said. “I did some extrapolation. We clearly would have done better, but I overestimated by saying we would have had the majority.”

The Pinocchio Test

Congressional mapping isn’t an exact science, so the party that wins the popular vote doesn’t always end up with a House majority. Both parties also tend to use their state-level legislative power to draw districts to their advantage, adding another kink to an already imperfect system.

There is little doubt that both of these factors helped the GOP retain its control of the House in the 2012 election. But while Democrats won the popular vote, their numbers weren’t enough to overcome the Republican majority, not even if the pre-2010 congressional map were still in place.

We appreciate Frank’s willingness to respond directly to our questions, and we respect the fact that he fessed up to a mistake. As such, we’re willing to knock off a Pinocchio from his rating, especially since he made the remarks as part of a live television interview rather than in a prepared speech.

However, we can’t entirely overlook the fact that he stated a faulty assumption as truth. The congressman earns two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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