by Gerry Cohen
[Ed. note: This originally appeared as a comment on Increasing Voter Turnout II. We thought it was important enough to publish it as a guest post. Gerry Cohen has been director of bill drafting for the North Carolina General Assembly since 1981 and was staff co-chair of NCSL's Redistricting Task Force in 1993.]
Karl Kurtz' post "Increasing Voter Turnout II" reports on a recent recommendation by the American Political Science Association (APSA) Standing Committee on Civic Education and Engagement that states should use nonpartisan commissions to draw congressional and state legislative districts, saying that this step is "...the single most important thing that could be done to increase competitiveness and spur political participation," (p. 58). Kurtz notes "Despite their enthusiasm for this reform, the authors do not present any evidence of a link between competitive legislative districts and levels of political participation."
In fact, recent political science literature shows that redistricting, whether by state legislatures or nonpartisan commissions, is not the cause of the lack of competitiveness in congressional races.
A recent Journal of Politics article, "Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections," by Alan I. Abramowitiz, Brad Alexander, and Matthew Gunning suggests that the decline in competitiveness is actually caused by demographic changes, increased partisanship by voters, the power of incumbency and the inability of challengers to raise campaign funds, and that "redistricting appears to have little or nothing to do with this trend ..." (p.86)
"The redistricting hypothesis, which appears to enjoy the status of conventional wisdom among media commentators and editorial writers, argues that declining competition is due mainly to the effects of partisan or bipartisan gerrymandering. According to this hypothesis, state legislatures using sophisticated new computer-based technology have been skillfully drawing congressional district lines ... the results of this process, according to the hypothesis, have been an increase in the number of districts that are safe for one party..." (p. 76)
The authors show that redistricting is actually the smallest of factors that result in the reduced competitiveness. As to the ability of redistricting commissions to sustain competitiveness, their data shows that
"... control of redistricting had no effect on the change in the proportions of safe and marginal districts between 2000 and 2002. Regardless of whether there was one-party control of redistricting, divided-party control, or nonpartisan/judicial control, there was very little change in the proportions of safe and marginal districts." (p79).
They demonstrate that in states in which redistricting was done by nonpartisan commissions or courts, marginal districts decreased from 25% in 2000 to 24% in 2002, while safe districts increased from 44% to 51%. In states in which congressional redistricting was done by the legislature, marginal districts decreased from 29% in 2000 to 28% in 2002, while safe districts dropped from 46% to 45% in that period.
A 2004 study by the Austin American-Statesman newspaper showed that the nation is evenly divided between the two major parties but that there is little competition in most counties. In 1976, 26.8 percent of American voters lived in counties with landslide presidential election results in which one party had 60 percent or more of the vote. But by 2000 that had increased to 45.3 percent. The Texas newspaper suggested that the fastest-growing kind of segregation is between Republicans and Democrats.
In "The Redistricting Myth," Binghamton University political science Professor Jonathan Krasno recently wrote in the Democratic Strategist that
"The best explanation [for a lack of competition] is deceivingly simple: lack of effort. That is not to say that the main actors in congressional elections - candidates, parties, interest groups, and the media - do not work hard. Rather, these players have increasingly come to focus their attention on the group of races they find most competitive, essentially ignoring a growing number of campaigns."