Gerrymandering and the “Breyer Criterion”

On March 26th the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Rucho v. Common Cause. The case concerns whether North Carolina’s post-2010 electoral map so disadvantages Democratic candidates that it should be ruled unconstitutional. This case raises many Constitutional and legal issues that fall outside the purview of this blog; for instance, whether the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature showed the intent to discriminate against Democrats in their choice of map. However some of the issues raised during oral argument lend themselves to empirical examination.

A persistent concern during oral argument was whether “proportionality” should be used as a Constitutional standard to determine if a particular electoral outcome might be ruled unconstitutional.  In one of these discussions Justice Stephen Breyer proposed that “when a party wins a majority of the votes in a state, … but the other party gets more than two-thirds of the seats” the result could be declared unconstitutional.

How frequently might Justice Breyer’s criterion apply to actual state-level results comparing votes cast for Congress and the proportion of seats awarded? The Court has an incentive to establish a highly-restrictive criterion to deter future filings by state parties hoping to overturn an unfortunate result. How restrictive is the Breyer criterion? How often might we see electoral results flagged as potentially unconstitutional by the workings of this rule?

What Elections to Analyze

To address these questions, I begin with an invaluable dataset compiled by the MIT Election Lab. It comprises election returns for all candidates who ran for Congress between 1976 and 2018. Using these candidate records as a basis, I created a new aggregated dataset containing results by party for each combination of state and election year.

In the process I eliminated a number of records from consideration. First, because it is impossible to gerrymander a state with just one Congressional district, I excluded any state-year combinations when the state was apportioned into a single district. Examples include Alaska and Wyoming throughout the 1976-2018 period, and states like Montana and Nevada in the years when they had but one district.

I further eliminated states with just two Congressional districts. In those cases an election would fit the criterion if one party won over half the vote and lost both seats. However that outcome would occur by random chance a quarter of the time if both seats had even odds of going to either party.  Courts would likely not be willing to rule a particular seat distribution was unconstitutional when the result could have happened by chance a quarter of the time. As a result I also removed state-years when the state was apportioned only two seats.

Even this set of races needs further refinement to use as a basis to examine Breyer’s criterion. The canonical notion of a two-party race between a Democrat and a Republican dissolves once we look at the data.  Most races include minor candidates and not every seat has both a Democratic and a Republican contender.  Many seats were left uncontested over this period by one or the other major party, especially in the South.  And with the introduction of “top-two” voting in California and Washington, general elections can pit two Democrats or two Republicans against one another.

So I further limited the sample by selecting only Congressional elections with both a Democratic and a Republican contender. That left a total of 7,701 eligible races which I then aggregated to the level of state-years, e.g., Alabama in 1976. Some state-year combinations then had fewer than three contested races; those observations were also excluded. That left me with a total of 799 state-years for the analysis to follow.

Justice Breyer’s Criterion

So in this sample of nearly eight hundred Congressional outcomes, how often do we find the particularly egregious combination where a party won at least half the Congressional vote in a state but was awarded fewer than a third of the seats.

In practice Breyer’s criterion turns out to be highly restrictive.  Of the 799 Congressional elections that qualified for my sample, only seven (0.9 percent) would have fit his rule.  Moreover, only four seats were contested in the three Alabama races and the one in South Carolina. Assuming even odds of each seat electing a Democrat, but a Democratic majority overall, the chance of getting an outcome with at least three Republican seats is 1/8.1 Intuitively that seems too low a bar for declaring a particular result unconstitutional.

Of more interest is that three of the seven Alabama seats, and two seats in the South Carolina race, were uncontested. The totals for these states represent the votes cast and seats awarded in the contested districts. Leaving seats uncontested may itself be an indicator of gerrymandering, If maps are too distorted, it may make little sense for a party to invest resources in races where their opponents are certain to be victorious.

Pennsylvania and North Carolina are another story entirely though.

Breyer’s criterion flags three elections in those states. all of which took place after the 2010 Census. Since then both states have become poster children for gerrymandering. The Pennsylvania map that took effect in 2012 awarded Republicans fully thirteen of the state’s eighteen seats while the Democrats won the popular vote statewide by a small margin. The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled in January, 2018, that the Congressional map was so unfair that it violated the state’s own Constitution. The Court threw out the map and later that month commissioned Stanford Law School professor Nate Persily to draw a new one.  The 2018 election using the redrawn district lines resulted in a 9-9 tie, compared to the 13-5 advantage Republicans had maintained since 2010.

North Carolina is, of course, the state at issue in Rucho v Common Cause, so it is appropriate that it should be flagged here as well. Twice since the 2010 Census have the Democrats won a small majority of the popular vote, but were awarded only three or four of the state’s thirteen Congressional seats. So if Justice Breyer wanted to establish a criterion that would pick out the most egregious partisan gerrymanders, his one-half the vote/one-third the seats rule seems to fit the requirement.

Justice Breyer’s rule was not the only criterion discussed in oral arguments that day. Both plaintiff’s attorney Paul Clement and Justice Neal Gorsuch discussed a measure based on the difference between a state’s actual seat distribution and some measure of what its “proportionate” share might be. I turn to that subject in my next posting.

Next: Gerrymandering and “Proportionality:” Setting the Baseline


1Imagine a state with four districts. In three of them the Democrats and Republicans tie. In the fourth seat the Democrats win by one. That gives them a one-vote majority in the popular vote and one seat. If we flip a coin for each of the three tied districts, a result with three Republicans occurs one time in eight. I  thank my friend Jim Stodder for making me rethink the calculation of this probablity.