How Gerrymandering Can Reduce the Partisan Divide

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As recently as 20 years ago, there was no meaningful education divide between the two parties. Now, especially after last week’s midterm elections, Democrats control most of the districts with high levels of educational attainment.

Ironically, this educational divide creates incentives for both parties to draw congressional districts that are more alike in terms of education levels. This, in turn, should reduce the education divide between the two parties in the 2020s.

The thing to keep in mind when people talk about the shift in well-educated congressional districts is that one of the reasons well-educated districts exist, at least in the suburbs, is because they were drawn intentionally during the last round of redistricting. “Educational level,” at least as a partisan variable, will loom much larger during the 2020 redistricting process, and state parties are going to try to use it to their advantage when they draw lines for the next decade.

Consider Georgia, where Democrat Lucy McBath flipped my congressional district, the 6th, while the neighboring 7th was nearly a statistical tie after being a safe Republican district for a long time. Assuming Republicans control the 2020 redistricting process, they’re going to want to redraw those districts to give themselves more of an advantage. What makes Georgia a particularly interesting case is the five districts north of Atlanta — the rural 14th and 9th, and the well-educated 11th, 6th and 7th —have large disparities in education levels. More than 40 percent of the adult population in the 11th, 6th and 7th districts has at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 23 percent in the other two. If Republicans can trade some of the well-educated, Democratic-trending parts of the 6th and 7th for some of the less-educated, solid Republican parts of the 9th and 14th, they may be able to hold all five seats by making them more educationally equal.

Meanwhile, Democrats in a state like Virginia, which has trended their way over the last decade, will have a similar incentive to trade some of the educated precincts in districts they control for less-educated precincts in districts they don’t. In Virginia’s 10th district, where Democrat Jennifer Wexton defeated Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock by about 12 percent, about 55 percent of the adult population has a college degree. In the neighboring 5th district, where Democrats lost by less than 7 percent, only 26 percent has a college degree. Trading some of the educated parts of the 10th for the less-educated parts of the 5th may give Democrats an opportunity to win both seats.

It’s not clear that this dynamic benefits one party more than the other. But it should lead to a smaller educational disparity among districts in the 2020s. And that should lead to the two parties being less divided over education than they are now, because ultimately elected officials represent the values of their constituents.

If anyone is upset by this process, it might be the party base — on both sides — which has gotten used to controlling party agendas and processes as moderates have been wiped out. Will Democrats be enthusiastic about their House majority being at the mercy of swing districts with a greater share of less-educated, potentially rural voters? Will an increasingly Trumpian Republican Party want to share primary nominations for House districts with well-educated, potentially less-rural or conservative Republicans? Such may be the reality of the 2020s.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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