Why Redistricting Matters

Why did so many of our politicians fail to consider the views of the majority of Americans during the shutdown? Some commentators, as well as the President, have singled out uncompetitive districts, a consequence of gerrymandering, as one likely culprit.

December 5, 2013

The government shutdown this year, the first since 1995-1996, left several federal workers furloughed, and halted numerous essential functions. Although public opinion stood squarely against shutting the government down to defund or alter the Affordable Care Act, the obstructionism and dysfunction continued until the eleventh hour, when the House, Senate,and Obama Administration finally came to an agreement on a continuing resolution to fund the government and a bill to raise the debt ceiling.

Why did so many of our elected officials fail to consider the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans during this crisis? Some commentators, as well as President Obama, have singled out uncompetitive districts, a consequence of partisan gerrymandering, as one likely culprit. The story of uncompetitive districts begins with partisan conflicts over redistricting; the drawing of state legislative and Congressional district boundaries, generally every 10 years following the U.S. Census.

The last redistricting cycle was in 2010. In the respective states where they controlled redrawing district boundaries, partisans from both parties attempted to gain political advantages. However, Republicans emerged as the clear winners following the 2012 elections, gaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives by a 234 to 201 margin even though they garnered 1.4 million less aggregate votes nationwide than Democrats. This is not unique to Republicans; we saw the same pattern emerge in 1980 and again in 1990 – to Democratic benefit. 

In 2010, state legislatures and partisan commissions controlled the Congressional redistricting process in 29 states, while independent commissions or state and federal courts drafted the lines in the rest. Republican legislators and governors drew district lines for 173 out of the 435 seats in Congress. In these states, Republican candidates for the House won a dramatic 72 percent of the seats but only roughly 53 percent of the vote. Democratic legislators and governors controlled the process for merely 44 seats. Nonetheless, in these states, Democratic candidates for the U.S. House won 71 percent of the seats, with only about 56 percent of the vote. These partisan antics ensured that there were an overwhelming number of “safe” and “likely” seats, where a single party can predictably garner greater than 55 percent of the vote and partisan candidates can not be easily challenged by the other party.

According to Brennan Center analysis, following the 2010 redistricting cycle, the predicted number of total Republican seats, including safe, likely and marginal seats, increased from 230 to 241. The predicted Democratic seats, including safe, likely and marginal seats, fell from 205 to 134.

The increasingly uncompetitive nature of U.S. House districts is also evident in the analysis conducted by the election experts of the Cook Political Report and the National Journal. According to the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI),  the average district held by House Republicans in 2013 had a GOP advantage of 11.1 points. Around the last government shutdown, in 1995, the average district held by House Republicans had a GOP advantage of only 6.6 points.

Politicians in such safe districts have little incentive to compromise with the other party. In fact, in many cases their greatest fear is the risk of primary challenger even further engrained in ideological purity than them. Consequently, partisan gerrymandering has resulted in lopsided political representation for citizens and made compromise difficult for some politicians. 

Due to the impact of partisan redistricting tactics on the quality of representation, before the completion of the new state legislative and Congressional boundaries in 2010, some states sought to take the redistricting process out of the hands of partisans. In California, voters approved a new commission that dismantled several incumbent-protecting gerrymanders, and reduced the number of safe seats by nine. In Florida, a voter-initiated constitutional amendment mandated that state legislators abide by certain criteria including a prohibition on drawing districts that favor or disfavor any political party, or deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. According to Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium, California’s current U.S. House delegation of 38 Democrats and 15 Republicans is statistically in line with the 62 percent vote share that Democrats received. And at the state-level, the California legislature’s functionality has been praised, evinced by the passage of several important bills dealing with varied topics such as school financing, immigration, and gun control.

It may be too early to tell whether these reforms have worked, but the takeaway is that the process for redistricting and the district boundaries that result, matter not only because they can pre-determine election outcomes – as they have for many in the 113th Congress – but because those results can in turn determine the legislative agenda, and the nature and scope of the policies that get passed.

In 2013, many states have once again turned to reforming the redistricting process, some seeking comprehensive changes while others seek only minor ones. A full analysis of redistricting legislation that has passed, as well as legislation currently pending in different states, conducted by the Brennan Center, is available here.