Waldmann’s thoughts on voting districts

by Robert Waldmann

I think this is the best post I have read so far on the topic by Kathleen Geier.  Just go read it before reading my comment below.

Of course I have my usual comments:

Thank you Kathleen Geier  for your excellent post based on good shoe leather (OK leather ear to the phone) reporting.  I should also thank the political scientists who have been doing their job while I pretend to do it commenting on blogs (I’m supposed to be an economist).

But (of course there is a but) in those comments I have been stressing that bipartisan and court-drawn maps systematically cause Republicans to win a larger fraction of seats than votes.  The reason is that a bipartisan and court (except sometimes the Supremes) principal is that the House should look like the country and not like the White plus some brown and no black at all Senate.  There is an absolutely deliberate effort to create majority minority districts.  Those districts are overwhelmingly Democratic districts.  The intent isn’t partisan, but the effect is to cause Republicans to be over represented.  I add that I support the effort to make the House look like the country and not like the Senate.

Also, while I see why incumbency helps the party with more seats I do not at all find an explanation for why it explains the gap between popular vote and seats won.  The advantages of incumbency discussed in the post should cause the party with more incumbents to get more votes, yet they are discussed as if they affect seats won but not vote totals.  To explain the gap, one has to argue that incumbents generally win by narrow margins or lose by wide margins.
Here I think the problem may be with the reported vote totals.  Some states don’t report votes in races where there is only one candidate on the ballot.  Incumbents often get on the order of 99% of votes or more.  That’s a lot of wasted votes which would cause the party of incumbents to have a lot of votes per seat won.  But only if they are counted.

Even if the votes are counted, they may be few.  Some people (definitely including me) are irritated when invited to vote for the only candidate on the ballot (if I wanted to live in the USSR I would have moved there back when it existed).  For decades I chose Michael Capuano over write in, but I’m sure lots of other people left the oval empty out of irritation (this year I actually got to vote in a contested congressional election for the first time since hmmm voting for O’Neill over Abt in 1982 IIRC).  I think some correction for races with only one candidate on the ballot is needed.

Finally I don’t get this bit about fewer people in red districts.  What geographic boundaries are being considered ?  I can see how the requirement that each state have 1 representative could in theory create a small population at large district.  However, I think it doesn’t as even Wyoming is not an unusually small district.  I don’t see why representation of low population states would be rounded up more often than down.  If the boundaries are, say, county boundaries, then current redistricting does not respect them (I vote in the same county and a different district).  I tend to suspect that the random districting which respects geographic boundaries doesn’t correspond to anything but a silly modeling assumption.
Polite conclusion about how this is a great post and political scientists are awesome.

cross posted with   Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts