In which I put on my Nate Silver hat

Election day has come and gone, and while we — thankfully — already know the outcome, I can still write about it because votes continue to be counted over two weeks later. You may have heard that Barack Obama pulled out a victory in the Presidential race, earning just over 50% of the popular vote. And in a fun bit of irony, it’s looking increasingly likely that Mitt Romney will end up with roughly 47% of the popular vote.

But as you know, the popular vote doesn’t actually count for much. In case you have trouble hearkening back to 2000, a number of pre-election articles speculated that Romney might win the popular vote but lose the electoral college. A few even explored the dreaded electoral college tie (tl;dr – President Romney, Vice President Biden). And while neither of these nightmare scenarios came to fruition, that we could even conceive of such a thing underscores the extent to which our national offices need not reflect public opinion, as reflected — for the sake of argument — in the popular vote.

And the Presidency isn’t the only race in which the results need not align with the will of the collective people.

In the Senate, that much is obvious: every state, regardless of size, gets two Senators. But this year, when the Democrats expanded their slim majority to 53-47, the margin roughly mirrored the popular vote. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, was a clear outlier — Republicans comfortably held onto their majority.

What happened? Did that many people vote for Obama and for a Democratic Senator — and also for a GOP representative?

As you probably guessed: No.

Like in the Presidency and the Senate, House Democrats received more votes overall, but still managed to lose the chamber. If you prefer a graphical representation, here’s what that looks like, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The reason is simple. Here’s Wikipedia’s take, which we’ll take as official (tl;dr – gerrymandering):

House Republicans were able to retain a solid majority due to their advantage in the congressional redistricting process following the 2010 United States Census… The last time the majority party in the House was unable to receive a plurality of the popular vote was in 1996, where the GOP kept the House for similar reasons.

Thanks to gerrymandering, only 74 House races were held in contested districts — meaning that in 361, voters had no real choice in their representation. And the trend toward safe districting is worsening:

In theory, gerrymandering cuts both ways — either party can do it.

In practice, it amounts to an enormous advantage for Republicans: in the most recent round of redistricting, Democrats got to draw the maps for 47 districts. Republicans did the same in 202. Still, GOP awareness that the plan could ultimately backfire means that there is a glimmer of hope for a solution through the political process (e.g. non-partisan redistricting commissions).

But while gerrymandering has been getting a lot of press, I found myself wondering about another, less-significant, but more-systemic tilt of the playing field: district size. While the number of districts per state is reapportioned after every census, there is still tremendous variation in the population of each district. Rhode Island, with a population of “1,055,247” sends two representatives to the House. Montana, with “994,416” (just over sixty thousand people fewer) sends only one.

In case you’re bad with numbers, that means Montana’s one district — the largest in the country — is nearly double the size of each of Rhode Island’s — the smallest. In other words, all else being equal, a vote for the House in Montana is worth roughly half as much as in Rhode Island.

So how much of a difference did this actually make in the 2012 election?

If varying district size mattered, we might expect some discrepancy between each party’s share of the House, and the percentage of the overall population it purported to represent. So I ran the numbers, and the answer is clear: it didn’t make much of a difference in 2012. But it could have, and so — drawing inspiration from the various Journals of Negative Results — I thought it would be worth sharing what I found.

Republicans won 236 seats; Democrats 199. These numbers correspond to 54.25% and 45.75% of seats in the House.

Republican Congressmen represent 168,028,330 Americans, or 54.35% of 309,183,463; Democrats represent 141,155,133, or 45.65%.

While the difference may have been small in 2012, the distribution of votes across districts could have a significant impact. If you assemble a coalition of the smallest districts and work your way up, you could win the House with districts representing only 48.5% of the population of the United States.* Granted, you’d be talking about a clean sweep of, inter alia, California and Texas,** but the bottom line is the same: House representation of the American voting public can be distorted by up to 3% (51.5-48.5) thanks to district size alone. Voters in large districts simply count for less. And that means — like in the electoral college — all votes are equal, but some votes are more equal than others.

Given that the 435 Representatives must be somehow apportioned between 50 states, the best the current system could ever produce might be just this sort of imperfect approximation.

But I have a single, far-fetched solution to both differently-apportioned districts and gerrymandering: eliminate the relationship between Congressional districts and state boundaries altogether. Taking state lines out of the equation would allow districts around the country to contain a roughly equal number of people (around 710,767). Further, because Congressional districts would be in no way tied to state boundaries, state legislatures would lose their ability to gerrymander at will.

And to head off your protest, it’s not like state boundaries have a whole lot to do with this:

Under this plan, redistricting nationwide would be turned over to a single impartial committee mandated to draw entirely non-partisan lines. And if you’re worried people can’t be trusted, period comma limit the information they’re able to access on the job — or just go ahead and write an open-source computer program to do it for them.

I’ll close by reminding you that Senators were once selected by state legislatures, a system that gave force to the notion that the Senate was the half of our bicameral legislature “of the states”. The Seventeenth Amendment put an end to this practice.

The Twenty-eighth Amendment could end two sources of unequal voting, and give force to the notion that the House is the half of our bicameral legislature “of the people”. Something tells me it’s not gonna happen.


*For the sake of comparison, you could win the electoral college with states representing only 44.5% of the population of the United States.

**The complete list (22 states): Rhode Island, Wyoming, Nebraska, West Virginia, Vermont, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Minnesota, Maine, Washington, North Dakota, Nevada, Hawaii, Alabama, New Mexico, Utah, Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and 9 of 14 seats in Michigan.


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