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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gerrymandering and Turnout

In the occasional discussion of congressional gerrymandering and redistricting reform, it’s generally taken for granted that noncompetitive elections negatively affect voter interest and thus turnout. But until now, there have been few if any efforts to actually measure that effect. Today the Democratic Leadership Council released a study by Marc Dunkelman that suggests that truly competitive House districts could generate as much as 11 million additional votes, heavily concentrated in those states (Dunkelman calls them the “dirty dozen”) with particularly egregious gerrymandering practices. (David Broder favorably wrote the study up in his column today).
The study’s methodology is fairly simple: it compares turnout across House districts nationally in terms of the margin of victory in the two most recent offyear elections, 2002 and 2006. And while Dunkelman acknowledges that factors other than competitiveness affect turnout (most notably “up-ballot” statewide contests, which are isolated in the study), the turnout disparaties between competitive and noncompetitive House contests are indeed too vast to be an accident.
It’s also no coincidence that seven of the twelve states with the worst recent record of compeititive House races are in the South (VA, SC, GA, FL, AL, LA and AR), where turnout has typically been lower due to a host of historical factors, and where Voting Rights Act considerations have often contributed to minority-vote “packing” and “bleaching,” practices deliberately designed to produce “safe” districts. GA has been something of a laboratory for both racial and political gerrymandering during the last two decades. And FL, along with PA and TX, was the site of an egregious partisan gerrymandering effort by the GOP during the last round of redistricting.
What is to be done about gerrymandering? The DLC study doesn’t much get into prescriptions, but having spent quite a bit of time on this subject, I can say with some confidence that there ain’t no easy fix. The most common reform, the creation of “independent” redistricting commissions, does directly deal with the conflict of interest involved in state legislators drawing up their own maps. But the record of such commissions on congressional redistricting is mixed at best, tending to produce political compromises more than competitive districts. The problem is that it requires positive action, not just an alleged absence of “partisan politics,” to create a truly competitive map. And indeed, truly competitive schemes often run afoul of “traditional redistricting principles” like compact districts that respect jurisdictional lines as much as gerrymandering does. The fate of competition-focused redistricting ballot initiatives in OH and FL in 2006 (the former was trounced at the polls; the latter succumbed to a constitutional challenge before making it to the ballot) showed the difficulty, both technical and political, of such efforts.
Still, with the next decennial round of redistricting on the near horizon, it’s time to start thinking about redistricting reform in a serious way. And Dunkelman’s study helps establish that this isn’t just some goo-goo issue of interest only to wonks, or inversely, an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of partisan politics. Gerrymandering, which can roughly be defined as elected officials choosing voters, is an important and corrosive contributor to our country’s dubious record of low voter participation and civic disengagement.

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