More on Democrats and Redistricting

MORE ON DEMOCRATS AND REDISTRICTING….In a recent column, Paul Krugman suggested that the structure of House districts is fundamentally rigged in favor of Republicans:

The key point is that African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are highly concentrated in a few districts. This means that in close elections many Democratic votes are, as political analysts say, wasted ? they simply add to huge majorities in a small number of districts, while the more widely spread Republican vote allows the G.O.P. to win by narrower margins in a larger number of districts.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that because of this ”geographic gerrymander,” even a substantial turnaround in total Congressional votes ? say, from the three-percentage-point Republican lead in 2004 to a five-point Democratic lead this year ? would leave the House narrowly in Republican hands. It looks as if the Democrats need as much as a seven-point lead in the overall vote to take control.

Is this true? Krugman is referring to “majority-minority” House districts, in which minority voters are packed heavily into single districts in order to encourage the election of minority candidates. These districts were originally created as a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and their numbers were later enlarged thanks to the charmingly named “Project Ratfuck,” a Republican program designed to help groups like the NAACP create greater numbers of majority-minority districts after the 1990 census. (See Rachel Morris’s “The Race to Gerrymander” for the details.)

Did it work? The number of majority-minority districts increased from 27 to 56 after the 1990 round of redistricting, and in 1994 Republicans won a landslide victory in the midterm election. Case closed?

Not really. It’s true that Republicans won 53% of House seats in the 1994 election, but they also won 53% of the two-party vote that year. And it’s not just 1994. Delia Grigg and Jonathan Katz of Caltech, using data from congressional elections in every state from 1972-2000, have concluded that majority-minority redistricting has had at most a tiny effect in favor of Republicans ? and most likely no effect at all. Project Ratfuck may have been meant to help the Republican cause, but in practice it had very little impact. (Although it did help a lot more minority candidates get elected.)

The table below lays out more evidence. It shows the percentage of the two-party vote and the percentage of congressional seats won by Democrats in every election since 1992. In 1992 they won more seats than they should have, and in every election since then (with a modest exception in 1996) they’ve won nearly as many seats as the popular vote suggests they should. Dems do seem to have a structural disadvantage, but it’s closer to 1% than 7%.

This doesn’t prove anything conclusively ? in fact, the 1996 exception is a data point in favor Krugman’s thesis ? but the overall evidence, combined with the Grigg/Katz results, suggests that majority-minority redistricting hasn’t seriously affected the ability of Democrats to win congressional seats. If Dems win 53% of the two-party vote this November, I’ll bet they win close to 53% of the seats too.

NOTE: I’m mostly posting this in hopes that someone who knows a lot about this stuff will see it and chime in. I’d be interested to hear some expert opinion about whether there’s more to this than meets the eye.