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Thu Jan 10, 2013, 04:29 PM

Building a Better Democracy

Steve Coll - The New Yorker

Media narratives of the fiscal-cliff negotiations and the upcoming debt-ceiling brinksmanship often seem premised on the idea that the American people have voted for a divided government and are demanding that President Obama and the Republican House split their differences in a responsible bipartisan bargain, grand or otherwise. But what if the voters, properly understood, haven’t actually sent such a message?

Obama won the popular vote by a comfortable margin and secured a second term in the White House. That same day, more Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than Republicans; this led to the inauguration, last week, of a Senate led by Democrats. And a million more Americans voted for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives than voted for Republican candidates. Yet the new House has a thirty-three-seat Republican majority.

There is one main reason for the electoral anomaly in the House: gerrymandering. Every ten years, following the decennial census mandated by the United States Constitution, state governments redraw legislative and congressional districts. Republicans have done well at capturing statehouses in recent years, even in states that have gone Democratic in Senate and Presidential votes, such as Virginia. In some of these states, Republicans have redrawn district lines with ruthless self-interest to ensure that voters elect the maximum conceivable number of Republicans to the House.

Organizational theory and common sense would suggest that both major political parties engage in such shenanigans equally, when given the opportunity. That may be so over long periods of time; there is no especially convincing reason to ascribe to the Democratic Party any self-effacing idealism about getting its people elected. And yet, in a series of compelling posts recently, the statistical election-modeller Samuel Wang, of the Princeton Election Consortium, has argued that we are in an “asymmetric” period of Republican manipulation of electoral maps.


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