Gerrymandering and Congressional Power

Last time we saw that mathematical tools allow us to identify congressional districts that may be gerrymandered. These congressional districts are oddly shaped, but what isn’t immediately clear is whether these shapes are that way for legitimate political purposes (eg AZ-02) or for legitimate boundary purposes (eg rivers, coastlines) or signs of true gerrymandering. These mathematical techniques allow us to analyze the districts in a purely non-partisan manner and quickly weed out the vast majority of non-gerrymandered districts. The mathematical analysis is neither liberal nor conservative.

However, identifying problem districts is one thing, reshaping them into more reasonable forms is another. The entrenched politics of gerrymandered districts may require a leader to step forward in order for change to occur. Such leaders may emerge from Congress itself. While the geographical boundaries of all the congressional districts are almost trivially easy to find online, it is much harder to find information regarding when these districts took the shape they currently have. Consequently it is difficult to determine if the district was gerrymandered for the representative currently holding the seat or if it was gerrymandered for a representative who no longer holds that seat. Either way any representative in a gerrymandered district should be ashamed of this regardless of why the district was gerrymandered. Public pressure could be brought to bear on the representatives in those states that will go through a redistricting process as a result of the 2010 census. Weaker politicians may be too squeamish to embrace this change, but powerful ones should be powerful and popular enough to survive even a redistricting.

Thus the question becomes are there any powerful congressmen from apparently gerrymandered districts? The short answer is “yes”, we found four powerful congressmen from geographically fractured districts. We examined the districts of the 55 most powerful congressmen in order to see if any of those districts were also in the top 55 geographically fractured districts. For “fractured” we used the scores at and if 3 of the 4 scores were in the top 55 that was good enough for us. The power scores came from, specifically their page here.

George Miller CA-7
rank 14/435
Shape Rating
Power Rating

The most powerful congressman from a geographically fractured district is George Miller from California’s 7th district. A score card showing his detail is shown at right.  As we’ve mentioned before, it is somewhat disingenuous to cite someone as being an outlier merely because they’re in the top 50. Someone always has to be in the top 50. What is more important is to note how far outside of the normal range these people are. used a sparkline graphic to illustrate just this point for their shape scores. You can see at a glance the shape scores for all the congressional districts follow a bell-shaped curve, with the red-line showing where the score for this particular district lies. We’ve followed that same style for the power rating. To be consistent with the shape scores where highly fractured is on the left, high power is on the left. Representative Miller has a high power score, and his power is well above the average (as is everyone else’s on this list).

If you click on the graphic for the district you’ll be sent to the detail page on RedistrictingTheNation’s website where you can judge for yourself whether the district is gerrrymandered or geographically fractured for other reasons. A note, while California is both mountainous and coastal, the twisty part of the boundary doesn’t necessarily line up with these geographical features. Representative Miller is the most powerful congressman from a fractured district, but his district is the least fractured of the four we found. In decreasing order of congressional power the rest are below.

Frank Pallone NJ-6
rank 16/435
Shape Rating
Power Rating

Representative Frank Pallone from New Jersey’s 6th district is next on the list. New Jersey is a coastal state, but the twisty parts of Representative Pallone’s district face inward. You can see from the shape scores below that his is the most geographically fractured of our four. Not by a little, but by a lot.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz
FL-20 Rank 24/435
Shape Rating
Power Rating

Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz from Florida’s 20th district is next. Again Florida is a coastal state but most of the fracturing of Florida’s 20th is inland. The U-shaped hole on the top is suburban Fort Lauderdale, the long peninsula at the bottom picks up some suburbs of Miami. An obvious redistricting would be to compact Representative Wasserman-Schultz’s district to the Fort Lauderdale area.

Jane Harman CA-36
Rank 27/435
Shape Rating
Power Rating

Representative Jane Harman from California’s 36th district is next on the list. The shape of this district doesn’t look so bad but the smooth part on the left is the coastline! This district seems to pick and choose neighborhoods near Long Beach to the exclusion of neighborhoods near Inglewood and Santa Monica. Additionally Wikipedia mentions that she’s the 2nd wealthiest member of Congress, so if anyone can withstand a redistricting it should be Ms Harman.

A Postscript

Initially the comparison of congressional power with geographically fractured districts revealed 5 powerful congressmen from fractured districts. However earlier this week the most powerful of the 5 passed away following complications from gall bladder surgery.

John Murtha PA-12
13/435 deceased
Shape Rating
Power Rating

John Murtha came from Pennsylvania’s 12th district. The fractured nature of PA-12 is plainly obvious. Indeed its shape was the inspiration for the examples in the explanatory table at the end of the previous article. Murtha held this district since 1974, despite the fact that each Census since then Pennsylvania has lost 2 congressional seats. Losing 6 seats since the 1980 census had to result in significant redistricting. Now the seat is up for a special election. Clearly someone less powerful will get the seat. If trends continue Pennsylvania will lose another 1 or 2 seats as a result of the 2010 census. Powerful congressmen who can weather a redistricting and want to do right by the people may well be good champions of this cause, however the power of the people up against a weak congressman may also serve as a good champion of this cause. We may never know whether Murtha would have been in favor of reshaping his district, but with a newcomer taking his seat it is clear that the people of PA-12 will have relatively little to lose and fairness to gain in the reshaping of Pennsylvania’s 12th district.

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