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Socially Optimal Districting: An Empirical Investigation


  • Stephen Coate
  • Brian Knight


This paper provides an empirical exploration of the potential gains from socially optimal districting. As emphasized in the political science literature, districting matters because it determines the seat-vote curve, which relates the fraction of seats parties obtain to their share of the aggregate vote. Building on the theoretical work of Coate and Knight (2006), which develops and analyzes the optimal seat-vote curve, this paper develops a methodology for computing actual and optimal seat-vote curves and for measuring the potential welfare gains that would emerge from implementing optimal seat-vote curves. This method is then applied to analyze districting plans in place during the 1990s to elect U.S. State legislators. The analysis shows that the plans used by the states in our data set generate seat-vote curves that are overly responsive to changes in voters' preferences. While there is significant variation across states, the potential welfare gains from implementing optimal seat-vote curves are on average small relative to the overall surplus generated by legislatures. This appears to be because seat-vote curves are reasonably close to optimal rather than because aggregate welfare is insensitive to varying districting plans. Interestingly, implementing proportional representation would produce welfare levels quite close to those achieved by implementing optimal seat-vote curves.

Suggested Citation

  • Stephen Coate & Brian Knight, 2006. "Socially Optimal Districting: An Empirical Investigation," NBER Working Papers 12313, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12313
    Note: PE POL

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. de Sousa, José & Mayer, Thierry & Zignago, Soledad, 2012. "Market access in global and regional trade," Regional Science and Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 42(6), pages 1037-1052.
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    7. Di Tella, Rafael & Schargrodsky, Ernesto, 2003. "The Role of Wages and Auditing during a Crackdown on Corruption in the City of Buenos Aires," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 46(1), pages 269-292, April.
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    9. Ilyana Kuziemko & Eric Werker, 2006. "How Much Is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 114(5), pages 905-930, October.
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    JEL classification:

    • D7 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making
    • H7 - Public Economics - - State and Local Government; Intergovernmental Relations

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