Why do more votes translate into fewer U.S. House seats?

As of Wednesday late afternoon, Think Progress added up all of the votes cast across the country for U.S. House candidates and found that more voters had voted for Dem candidates than Repub.

The difference was slight, about half a million votes out of more than 100 million cast. Some votes were still being counted. And Think Progress writer Ian Millhiser enumerated the vagaries that make it difficult to press the analysis too far.

But nonetheless, with 10 races still not called, the Repubs were sitting on a 233-192 advantage in the House heading into the next Congress. That’s 55 percent of the House seats for the party that apparently got slightly less than 50 percent of all the votes cast.

It would take more analysis to explain this, but a lot of it has to be attributable to the House district boundaries, which had just been redrawn in the aftermath of the 2010 census. Millhiser hit the partisan gerrymandering button pretty hard:

“ There is a simple explanation for how this happened: Republicans won several key state legislatures and governors’ mansions in the election cycle before redistricting, and they gerrymandered those states within an inch of their lives. President Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 5 points, but Democrats carried only 5 of the state’s 18 congressional seats.

Similar stories played out elsewhere. Obama won Virginia, and Democrats took 3 of 11 House seats. Obama won Ohio, but Democrats carried only 4 of 16 seats in Ohio’s House delegation.”

I suspect Millhiser’s suspicions are well-founded. All three of those states also had U.S. Senate races, and the Democrat won all three. And all three were states in which the Repubs controlled both houses of the legislature and the governorship when the maps were redrawn in 2011.

It would take a bit more analysis to really prove the point. But even if it’s true, it’s not cheating, it’s how the system works. If one party controls both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office in a state, that party can draw a congressional district map that maximizes their chances of winning as many U.S. House races as possible (and the same for legislative districts).

Democrats controlled the redistricting process in Illinois, and sure enough, the Dems picked up three seats in 2012 compared to 2010.

In circumstances where control of the state government is divided (as was true of Minnesota in 2011), the parties can either work out a compromise or else the boundaries will be drawn by the federal courts. The court-drawn maps are generally less partisan.

By the way, when I say “it’s how the system works,” that doesn’t mean that this process is controlled by the Constitution. As I mentioned in one of the installments of the “Imperfect Union” series, The U.S. Constitution doesn’t even require that states be divided into single-member House districts. It merely requires that every ten years, after a new census, the number of House seats awarded to each state be recalculated based on changes in population. In the early years of the republic, there were many states that used systems other than single-member districts. As late as 1960, several states still had mixed systems in which there were House members who represented individual districts and others who represented the state at large.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/08/2012 - 04:42 pm.


    I’m not going to defend the practice of gerrymandering. There are some simple solutions to eliminate it, and they should be put in place. Iowa is a leader in the field. This is probably a bigger obstacle to fair representation than some of the other hot button issues that libs worry about, like the electoral college.
    I will point out that if the 2010’s give the GOP a structural advantage in the House, it will reverse the 2000’s in which the Dems had that advantage. As recently as 2008, Dems had about 25 more seats than they would have based on percentages of votes in each state.
    It was wrong then and is still wrong and I’d welcome some actual change on this issue.

  2. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 11/08/2012 - 05:14 pm.

    Fox and henhouse

    Putting elected partisan officials in charge of drawing boundaries is wrong. Iowa does it extra-legislatively, because it is wrong the way Reoublicans have currently manipulated the system. As did the Democrats 20 years ago.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 11/08/2012 - 09:35 pm.

    Now that you mention it

    what law says that the number of people in Congress is fixed at 550 (or whatever it is now)? Can’t we increase the number to 1,000 or 2,000 and star whittling down the size of these districts?

  4. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 11/08/2012 - 09:35 pm.

    The solution to gerrymandering

    is proportional representation elections, either statewide or in multi-member districts with at least four or five to be elected.

  5. Submitted by Doug Gray on 11/09/2012 - 10:34 am.

    Careful, Eric

    Systems other than single-member districts still can be, and were, used to gerrymander along racial and partisan lines. I moved to Arlington, Virginia in 1981. Arlington elected three members at-large to the state House of Delegates, the City of Alexandria elected two at-large, and Arlington and Alexandria together elected one more at-large. The rest of the state was a similar crazy quilt of at-large and shared districts. There were no African-Americans in the Virginia state legislature. After the U.S. Justice Department found this discriminatory (and after three state legislative elections in three years under three different districting schemes, the last single-member), the late Yvonne Miller became the first African-American since Reconstruction and the first woman ever elected to the House of Delegates. I recall the Republican minority leader of the House of Delegates being quoted at the time as saying he didn’t really believe in one person, one vote…

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