Governor’s Plan to Redraw the Political Map
Don't blame redistricting for uncompetitive elections
"Here is a telling statistic: 153 of California's congressional and legislative seats were up in the last election, and not one, I repeat, not one, changed parties. What kind of democracy is that?"
With those words in his 2005 State of the State address, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced a proposal to reform the electoral process in the Golden State. The problem with California's congressional and legislative elections, according to Schwarzenegger, is that the Democratic majority in the Legislature has used its control over redistricting to maximize the number of Democratic seats by packing Republican voters into as few districts as possible. It's called gerrymandering, and it has been going on since the days of Elbridge Gerry, the 19th-century Massachusetts politician whose political mapmaking skills gave birth to the term.
The difference today is that 21st-century politicians have far more sophisticated mapmaking tools than Gerry. Computer programs allow legislators to use data on voting patterns and demographic characteristics that are broken down to the city-block level. The result, according to Schwarzenegger and other critics of current redistricting practices, is that most seats are safe for one party or the other -- and it is almost impossible for the minority party to threaten the majority party's control.
The solution, the critics say, is to transfer responsibility for drawing state legislative and congression- al districts from the Legislature to independent, nonpartisan commissions such as the panel of retired judges proposed by Schwarzenegger. These nonpartisan commissions would presumably create more competitive districts.
Schwarzenegger clearly has a point. California's elections have been uncompetitive recently. But lack of competition isn't just a California problem. In the 2004 U.S. House elections, only five challengers nationwide managed to unseat an incumbent. Of the 435 seats in the House, only 22 were decided by a margin of less than 10 percentage points.
While making elections more competitive is a worthy goal, our analysis of competition in U.S. House elections since the late 1970s shows that redistricting has not made these elections less competitive and that turning control of redistricting over to nonpartisan commissions would not necessarily increase competition.
Despite redistricting, the number of "safe" House districts only increased from 201 to 203 between 2000 and 2002 and the number of competitive districts only decreased from 123 to 117. Think nonpartisan redistricting commissions would produce more competitive House elections? Think again. In the 2001-2002 round of redistricting, eight states with a total of 75 House districts used nonpartisan commissions to redraw their districts or had their districts redrawn by the courts. In the 2002 elections, only seven House races in those states were decided by less than 10 percentage points and not one incumbent was defeated.
House districts have become less competitive since the 1970s, but not because of redistricting. Most of the change has occurred between redistricting cycles. Just between 1992 and 2000, the number of safe districts increased from 156 to 201 while the number of competitive districts decreased from 157 to 123.
Why have congressional districts become less competitive? For the same reasons that states and counties have become less competitive. Immigration, internal migration and ideological realignment have turned many competitive areas of the country into one-party strongholds. In the 1976 presidential election, 20 states with 299 electoral votes were decided by a margin between the major-party candidates of less than 5 percentage points. But in 2004, only 10 states with 106 electoral votes were decided by a margin of less than 5 percentage points.
California was once a swing state in national politics. In 1960, 1968 and 1976, Republican presidential candidates carried California by margins of 1, 3 and 2 percentage points, respectively. But in both 2000 and 2004, despite the closeness of the national vote, Democratic presidential candidates carried California by margins of 11 and 10 points, respectively. As the state of California has become less competitive, so have large regions within the state. The San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County have become much more Democratic. At the same time, many of the state's rural areas have been trending Republican.
The main reason there is so little competition in congressional and state legislative elections in California is that large areas of the state are now solidly Democratic or solidly Republican. In the 1976 presidential election, only two counties in California were decided by a margin of more than 20 percentage points, and those counties included only 8 percent of the state's voters. But in 2004, 36 counties were decided by a margin of more than 20 percentage points and those counties included 64 percent of the state's voters.
Given the one-sided partisan makeup of much of the state, it would be difficult for even a panel of retired judges to draw a large number of competitive legislative and congressional districts in California. And if you think some of the current districts are misshapen monstrosities, try to imagine what a competitive district in the Bay Area would look like.
If nonpartisan redistricting isn't the answer, what can be done to make elections more competitive? The other major reason for lack of competition in elections today is the enormous financial advantage enjoyed by incumbents. It now costs well over a million dollars to wage a competitive campaign for a U.S. House seat. Most incumbents can raise that kind of money, but very few challengers can. In the 2002 U.S. House elections in California, 40 of the 48 challengers spent less than $100,000; 34 spent less than $50,000. Nowadays, $100,000 isn't enough to make a dent in the armor of an entrenched incumbent.
Reforms that reduce such disparities -- clean-election laws, public financing of campaigns and free television time -- would go further in increasing electoral competition than redrawing maps. Taking away control of redistricting from incumbents is a good idea, but reformers who want to make elections more competitive should concentrate on finding ways to get more money and resources into the hands of challengers.
Alan Abramowitz is Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. Brad Alexander and Matthew Gunning are Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Political Science at Emory.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)
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