Will redistricting hurt Democrats in the state legislature?

Population change may cost Democrats 2 seats in the Utah House and 1 in the Senate.

A few days ago, we posted some information about population change within Utah’s 75 state House districts. Because the 2010 Census reports a population of 2,763,885 in Utah, each Utah House district will need roughly 36,852 people in it. As we reported earlier, Utah and Davis Counties will need to gain districts, but Salt Lake County will need to lose some.1

Perhaps the more interesting question isn’t about which counties will gain or lose districts, though. Perhaps the more interesting question is about which parties will gain or lose districts.

To get at this question, we looked to see how many people live in the typical Democratic-held district as opposed to the typical Republican-held district. (We’re classifying each district as Democratic or Republican based on the incumbent legislator’s party, not based on voter partisanship.)

We find that the average Democratic House district has 32,102 people in it. That’s 4,750 too few people. Meanwhile, the average Republican House district has 38,243 people in it. That’s 1,392 too many.

The pattern is the same in the Utah Senate. The average Democratic Senate district has 91,742 people in it, which is 3,563 below the target of 95,306 residents. Meanwhile, the average Republican Senate district has 96,440 people in it, which is 1,134 people too many.

These numbers do not bode well for legislative Democrats. They get even worse when we look at them another way. Consider this:

There are 17 Democrats in the Utah House. Together, their 17 districts are home to 545,742 residents. But if each district is supposed to have 36,852 people, then 545,742 residents is only enough to fill 14.8 districts. Meanwhile, the 2,218,143 people living in the 58 Republican districts are enough to fill 60.2 districts.

There are 7 Democrats in the Utah Senate. Together, their 7 districts are home to 565,807 residents. But if each of the 29 districts is supposed to have 95,306 people, then 565,807 residents is only enough to fill 5.9 districts. Meanwhile, the 2,198,078 people living in the 22 Republican districts are enough to fill 23.1 districts.

Based on these back-of-the-envelope calculations, population change may cost Democrats 2 seats in the Utah House and 1 in the Senate.

Democrats may respond that they’re already underrepresented in the Utah legislature due to partisan gerrymandering dating back to 2001. After all, Democratic candidates for the Utah House received 30% of the votes statewide in 2010, but they won only 23% of the seats. If Democrats lose 2 seats in the House, then their seat share would fall from 23% to 20%.

How is it possible that Democrats could win 30% of the votes statewide but only 20-23% of the seats? This post is already long enough, so we’ll stop here for now. But we’ll answer that question in a couple days. Stay tuned. Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that gerrymandering is not to blame.

This is part of a series of posts about redistricting in Utah. For an overview, read the introductory post. My talented research assistant, Robert Richards, contributed heavily to this series.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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2 Responses to Will redistricting hurt Democrats in the state legislature?

  1. Kent Larsen says:

    Doesn’t the fact that the districts have already been gerrymandered to reduce the number of Democrats make it more difficult for redistricting to make the situation still worse?

    There has to be some kind of limit to how much gerrymandering can be done, and as that limit is approached, wouldn’t it be more and more difficult?

    • Adam Brown says:

      In the next couple days, we’ll post some things looking at how much of a partisan gerrymander was put in place in 2001. It turns out that, despite lots of media reports to the contrary, there really wasn’t a major gerrymander, especially in the state legislative seats. I went into this project expecting to find exactly the opposite–that there had been a big partisan gerrymander.

      I don’t blame you if you don’t believe me about that claim just yet. But check back in a couple days for the analysis.

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