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Do Gerrymanders Come in Shades of Red and Blue?

Scholars assess whether the widely accepted notion that the current political polarization in the U.S. is due in part to 'safe' political districts is accurate.
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The type of redistricting reform Miller-McCuneexamines in its March-April issue is founded on a pair of premises — that citizens would be better off wresting control of the highly political process from the politicians who manipulate it for their own gain, and that, in doing so, we might cut down on the partisanship in government.

The first sentiment seems like common sense, and may be reason enough all by itself to adopt reforms nationwide that would give independent commissions the right to redraw congressional and legislative boundaries every 10 years. The second, from the point of view of Washington and the researchers who study it, is up for debate.

Redistricting reform such as that attempted in California proposes to curb partisanship. But how much of the partisanship in Washington — by many accounts, at an all-time high — is actually attributable to gerrymandering?

The Woodrow Wilson Center this week held an event examining just that question (we can only assume in response to Miller-McCune's opening volley on the topic). Mercer University law professor David Oedel brought some research he thinks gives a surprising answer.

His team examined the voting records of congressmen elected from districts redrawn by relatively independent commissions before and after those commissions were adopted by their respective states around the 2000 census. The sample size was admittedly small. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only six states give first and final say on congressional redistricting to such a commission, although several other states use commissions in some advisory form or other.

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

The Mercer study looked at congressmen from Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho and Maine. It then used the National Journal's index of the partisanship of congressional voting records.

Its finding: The use of independent commissions to draw congressional districts did lead to the election of representatives with less partisan voting records, to a statistically significant degree.

"We were surprised," Oedel said. "We actually thought we were going to come out the other way."

This conclusion on the one hand follows another kind of conventional wisdom: that more competitive districts containing sizable Republican, Democratic and independent voting blocs will produce more moderate candidates who must straddle their diverse concerns to win in elections. But there has been little research that actually demonstrates this.

Oedel's explanation: "We're thinking that where packing (of similar voters) occurs, where packing can be manipulated — not just for some odd-shaped district, but where the particular focus is to insulate individual candidates from competition outside their party — they become interested in avoiding attacks from within their own parties and become relatively insensitive to concerns across the aisle."

Oedel even goes a step further in suggesting the current spike in partisanship since the 1970s directly correlates with the advent of the modern era of gerrymandering following the 1962 Supreme Court decision Baker v. Carr. Redistricting reform, he adds, would then go a long way toward easing the partisanship in Congress.

The Woodrow Wilson panel was otherwise filled with skeptics. Thomas Hofeller, a redistricting consultant to the Republican National Committee, questioned the idea that such a thing exists as a "nonpartisan commission" for redistricting purposes. The gerrymander itself also dates back to its namesake, Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts in the early 19th century.

"If the premise is that polarization is relatively new, a new evil that we have now, I think you need to look to other causes for it," Hoffeler said. "The gerrymander's been with us for decades."

The only thing that's changed, he said, is that they're easier to draw now with the help of computer software.

Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar, also questioned the study's underlying conclusion, although he refuted one of Hofeller's points. The gerrymander has been around a long time — just like the filibuster — but that doesn't mean it's not used dramatically differently today.

One other messy fact goes unexplained by the Mercer study: If partisanship has been at least partly borne out of gerrymandering, how does that explain today's U.S. Senate, whose members are elected from entire states?

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