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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.

  • Syed Zaidi
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.