The Status is Not Quo.

Since the recent election, the idea has surfaced that the American people have chosen yet another divided government. In his column on Wednesday, George Will wrote,

A nation vocally disgusted with the status quo has reinforced it by ratifying existing control of the executive branch and both halves of the legislative branch.

Is this really true? Many Americans who voted for Democrat members of the House of Representatives might wonder who exactly voted for the Republican House. I had a suspicion, so I did some data digging.

Using the New York Times election data from Thursday morning, with a little programming magic, I came up with the following result:

  • Popular Votes for Democratic representatives: 54,329,835
  • Popular Votes for Republican representatives: 53,828,891
  • Popular Votes for third parties and write-ins: 3,141,569

That’s right, folks. Credit to the Republicans, they won the House fairly under the present rules… but the Democrats won the popular vote for the House48.81% to 48.36%

This doesn’t seem that surprising, does it? After all, every election for the last sixteen years or so, we’ve heard about how, due to the Electoral college, the popular vote for president could go differently than the state by state result.

This is different for two reasons. First, while it is the right of each state to apportion its representatives, the intention of the House is to reflect the will of the populace. The Senate, which sends two representatives from each state, big or small, is intended to reflect the state by state preferences of the nation. It could skew very heavily, if one or the other party was more strongly represented in the smaller states.

The House is supposed to be more balanced according to the percentages of the population. While it can still end up skewed on a state by state basis, it is against the spirit of the lower chamber for the result to skew very far on a national scale.

The second, much more important reason is this: as of this writing, with 9 seats undecided, the Democrats have 193 members in the house, while the Republicans have 233. This means:

  • The popular vote for the House was 48.81% Democrat, 48.36% Republican
  • But the Democrats only control 45% of the House, while the Republicans control 54%.

This is a 9% skew towards the Republicans on tied voting. The American people narrowly preferred Democrats for the house, at large… but the Republicans have a 9% margin of victory. Shocking, isn’t it?

Think of this another way: we all have a mental picture where battleground state votes have “high value”, where they are worth a lot more than other votes. If we average House seats by number of votes, and then normalize so that the average vote is worth 1, we get the following very unpleasant statistic:

  • If you voted for a Democrat for the House in this election, your vote was worth 0.9 votes.
  • If you voted for a Republican for the House in this election, your vote was worth 1.1 votes.

I hope you’re flabbergasted by that. I know I am. The vote of a Democrat is worth significantly less than the vote of a Republican.

This is the price of gerrymandering. It is a very real political tactic in which politicians redraw the districts (often times with very strange shapes) to concentrate their opponents’ votes in fewer districts, and spread their own winnings out into more districts.

Take another look at the NYTimes district map, or this one by Google. Look at something like south Texas, for instance. See those weird narrow districts at the bottom of the state? Look at Pennsylvania district 12, or North Carolina districts 1, 7, or 11. These are the shape they are specifically to change the apportionment of seats in the House. Both sides engage in this process, and each have some states where they gain an unfair advantage, but data shows that the Republicans are very definitely the worse offenders.

Older followers of politics know that gerrymandering is a problem. Younger followers might not know about it yet. I very much doubt anyone knows just how bad it is. I certainly didn’t. Well, this is how bad it is: one side has votes that are worth 0.9. The other side has votes that are worth 1.1. If they reach a national tie, one side will gain an automatic 9% advantage.

Those interested in cleaning up Washington’s gridlock might look to this as a problem worth solving. It won’t be easy; some severe gerrymandering has gone before the Supreme Court, and been upheld. We probably can’t count on the courts to solve the problem; it will have to be solved politically, at a grassroots and state level. Personally, I think this should be near the top of the Democrats’ to-do list for the next decade. I know I personally want a whole vote.