Gerrymandering matters less than you might think

You know all about gerrymandering, right? State legislatures meeting in brightly-lit, no-smoking-allowed back rooms, coming up with new ways of wringing House seats out of a gullible electorate. That (minus some of the more colorful details) is what a circuit judge determined the Florida legislature had done, drawing two crazy, racially dense congressional districts in violation of state law. And that, you may think, is why Congress looks the way it does.

Which is the point at which we say, as we are fond of saying: It is not that simple.

According to popular understanding, the House of Representatives is comprised of 435 wriggling, idiotic districts created solely to give one party or the other an advantage in elections. Over time, Congress has gotten more balkanized as the number of closely matched districts has gotten smaller and smaller.

Or not.

OverallParties

That's the average winning vote percentage for everyone elected to Congress in the six elections after Census-based redistricting. (We skipped the presidential election years in 1972 and 1992.) As you can see, the percentage with which people have been elected to Congress has not changed all that much. In 1962, the overall average was about 64.8 percent. In 2012, it was 65.17. Republicans have won with larger margins on average, but not consistently.

Another way of looking at it:

Shiftv3

The year 1962 was odd because Alabama decided to deal with losing a seat in Congress by having an at-large election and taking the top seven finalists. Otherwise, the percentage of winners getting at least 70 percent of the vote was up slightly in in the latter two races, but only slightly. In 1962, there were 50 races in which the victor got 80 percent of the vote or better. In 2012, there were 44.

Nor has gerrymandering resulted in substantially more safe-but-not-completely-safe districts. In 1962, 176 seats were captured with 50 to 60 percent of the vote. In 2002, that hit a low of 85. In 2012, it was at 157. The distribution floats around, but hasn't become dramatically different, if these six elections are a guide.

Of course, gerrymandering works on a state-by-state basis, redrawing lines to get one or two more congressional seats for your party. In Florida, the Republican Party went from holding 14 of 25 seats in 2009 to 17 of 27 in 2013. On the whole, though, Florida's races haven't gotten much more (or less) lopsided. Nor have races in other states that have seen some oddly drawn districts.

Average

Notice that huge number in Georgia in 1962? Most of the state's candidates won with 100 percent of the vote. Democrats, no less.

Gerrymandering is a game of increments, not sweeping change. If the goal has been to solidify districts as Democratic or Republican to make it easier for incumbents to win handily, that doesn't appear to have happened widely. If, instead, the goal is to pick up a seat here or there -- as was certainly the plan in Florida -- that has likely been more successful.

But the idea that we've moved away from some golden era of hard-fought contests between cigar-chompin' politicians simply isn't true. As these maps of the results of the six races above make clear, elections have always been a mix of close and landslide contests. The average margins of victory in our 435 House races remains pretty consistent.

1962

Democrats win 258 seats; Republicans, 176. Average winning vote percentage: 64.8 percent. Notice how many of the Democratic victories were with 100 percent of the vote.

1974

Democrats win 291 seats; Republicans, 144. Average winning vote percentage: 67.9 percent.

1982

Democrats win 269 seats; Republicans, 166. Average winning vote percentage: 68.2 percent.

1994

Democrats win 204 seats; Republicans, 230. Average winning vote percentage: 66.1 percent.

2002

Democrats win 204 seats; Republicans, 229. Average winning vote percentage: 70.3 percent. Notice how many of the Republican victories were with 100 percent of the vote.

2012

Democrats win 201 seats; Republicans, 234. Average winning vote percentage: 65.2 percent.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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