Vol. 28 No. 2 (April 2018) pp. 23-24

GERRYMANDERING IN AMERICA: THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, THE SUPREME COURT, AND THE FUTURE OF POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY, by Anthony J. McGann, Charles Anthony Smith, Michael Latner, and Alex Keena. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 272pp.

Reviewed by Robin E. Best, Department of Political Science, Binghamton University (SUNY). Email:

With the Supreme Court hearing partisan gerrymandering cases for the first time in over a decade, it is difficult to imagine a better time to read the comprehensive treatment of partisan gerrymandering in GERRYMANDERING IN AMERICA: THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, THE SUPREME COURT, AND THE FUTURE OF POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY. This book provides a thorough discussion of the causes and consequences of partisan bias in contemporary congressional districts, focusing on the political motivations behind partisan gerrymanders, the constitutional context for partisan gerrymandering, and the general implications of partisan gerrymandering for the organization of American democracy.

A major theme of the book is the attribution of partisan bias in current congressional districts to the political means and motives of state politicians. The authors argue that VIETH V. JUBELIRER (2004) effectively removed the possibility of challenging a districting plan on partisan grounds and, in doing so, provided states with free reign to engage in partisan gerrymandering. The Court’s decision in VIETH is situated within a broader constitutional context in Chapter 2, where it is presented as a backtracking of vote equality standards and a relative reversal of the Court’s position in previous partisan gerrymandering cases. The primary empirical findings are delivered in Chapter 3, where the authors employ a well-known symmetry measure of partisan bias (Gelman and King 1994) to show that bias in favor of the Republican Party has increased since the VIETH decision both nationally and in state-level districting plans. Although the authors find plenty of partisan bias already present in 2002-2010 congressional districts, this bias becomes more pervasive and pronounced in favor of the Republican Party under the new districts used in 2012.

Can we attribute this partisan bias to the political motives of state representatives? In Chapters 4 and 5 the authors do precisely this. Through careful analysis they eliminate three rival explanations for the presence of partisan bias in congressional districting plans: the natural geographic concentration of Democrats in urban areas, the need to draw majority-minority districts, and advancements in the technology used to create districting plans. Rather, they demonstrate that partisan bias follows the patterns one would expect if political motives were at work. The authors show the presence of bias in states where one party controlled the districting process and could benefit from a partisan districting plan, as well as an increase in bias across the two sets of districting plans in states where the same – almost always Republican – party controlled the districting process. Although it is difficult to disentangle the effects of the Court’s decision in VIETH from other political motivations, it is clear that the political circumstances of the districting plans drawn after the 2010 census allowed and encouraged Republican-led state governments to draw congressional district lines to their own advantage. A remaining question is whether partisan bias is also found in the districting plans used to elect the state legislators who draw congressional district lines. The presence of such bias would only serve to bolster the authors’ findings.

An additional feature of the book is that it places partisan gerrymanders in a broader constitutional context. The wave of partisan gerrymandering that began after 2000 and increased after the 2010 census is presented as a challenge to the [*24] Great Compromise and a reemergence of Anti-Federalist ideas. Districting plans that are biased in favor of one party inhibit the potential for individuals to elect their representatives of choice. Instead, the states themselves exert greater influence over the election of national representatives by drawing district lines in a manner that stacks the deck in favor of one party over the other. States have always had the power to do this, being able to determine the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections” (Article 1§4) of elections to the House of Representatives but, the authors argue, were previously restrained by the prospect of legal intervention. The Court’s decision in VIETH removed any judicial deterrent to engaging in partisan gerrymandering.

The authors conclude by proposing a standard for detecting partisan gerrymandering that, they argue, satisfies the conditions outlined by Justice Scalia of being both discoverable and manageable. The first step is to ground their standard in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by demonstrating that violations of majority rule are violations of individual rights. Next, they reintroduce the symmetry measure used to detect bias and responsiveness in earlier chapters to estimate the probability that a given set of districts will violate the majority rule principle. This linkage between the majority principle and symmetry rule is perhaps more tenuous than desired. As the authors note, partisan symmetry is a necessary but insufficient condition for avoiding violations of majority rule, and it is not always straightforward to compare the symmetry of state districting plans with national-level violations of majority rule. The willingness of the current Court to take on the allegations of partisan gerrymandering present in GILL V. WHITFORD and BENISEK V. LAMONE (Supreme Court opinions pending in both cases) suggest that the VIETH decision may not be its final word on partisan gerrymandering. Whether the Court will reconsider the symmetry measure as the core component of a judicial standard for detecting partisan gerrymanders is an open question, but it certainly makes the authors’ proposed standard a timely and relevant contribution to this field of legal analysis.

A consequence of having a book filled with big ideas is that they sometimes compete with one another for attention. However, the comprehensive ideas and questions raised in the book help to steer the discussion of partisan gerrymandering to important and fundamental questions about the organization of American democracy. The interested reader will also find many smaller but still intriguing discussions present throughout the book; such as the absence of a necessary relationship between geographic compactness and partisan bias, a brief foray into gerrymandering and partisan bias in the United Kingdom, and a simple demonstration of a principle from social choice theory. These smaller points, combined with the larger points outlined above, contribute to the book’s broad-based appeal to scholars and observers of partisan gerrymandering.

Gelman, Andrew, and Gary King. 1994. “A Unified Model of Evaluating Electoral Systems and Redistricting Plans.” AMERICAN JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE 38(2): 514-554.

VIETH V. JUBELIRER 541 U.S. 267 (2004).

© Copyright 2018 by author, Robin E. Best.