- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Declining competition in House elections is frequently cited as a festering wound on the American body politic. Since 1994, well over 90 percent of House incumbents have won re-election. And in 2004, the number of lawmakers who prevailed with less than 55 percent dipped to 7.4 percent, the first time in recent memory the number of competitive House seats sank below 10 percent.

Handicapping the 2006 elections, most prognosticators say a Democrat takeover of the House will be challenging because the number of seats “in play” is so small. Analysts argue that there are only between 30-40 competitive districts in 2006.

Political reformers often decry this increasing electoral power of incumbents. Competitive districts encourage lawmakers to moderate their positions, leading to more comity and cooperation in Washington, according to their view.

Conventional wisdom also usually fingers redistricting as the leading cause behind the decline in competitive House races. Partisan gerrymandering and bipartisan incumbent protection schemes have contributed to maps that leave few lawmakers truly vulnerable. Redistricting turns politics on its head. As one political operative said: “Usually voters pick the politicians. When it comes to redistricting, the politicians pick the voters.” So the received wisdom in the media, among pundits and certainly within the reform community is twofold: Electoral competition is good and redistricting is its enemy. These twin views become more deeply embedded in the lexicon of American politics with every passing day.

But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong? Some recent research by political scientists suggests it might be and that we should begin rethinking the causes of declining electoral competition — and whether closely divided districts are such a good thing in the first place.

In the most recent edition of “PS: Political Science and Politics,” Professor Alan Abramowitz and two graduate students, all from Emory University, argue that redistricting was not the major cause of the decline in competitive House seats. “There is little evidence that redistricting generally makes elections less competitive,” Mr. Abramowitz and his colleagues write.

Their research demonstrates that eight states, with a total of 75 House seats, used nonpartisan commissions or had courts redraw their congressional districts. The number of competitive contests in these races in 2002 was not significantly different than in all other states. Notably, “of 65 incumbents who ran for reelection in states whose districts were redrawn by the courts or non-partisan commissions, not one was defeated,” they say.

Declining electoral competition in jurisdictions not subject to “gerrymandering” — like states or counties — is another piece of evidence Mr. Abramowitz and his colleagues use to exonerate redistricting. In California, for example, 46 counties were considered competitive at the presidential level (won by one party by less than 10 percent) in 1976. Nearly two decades later, the number had fallen to 13.

Mr. Abramowitz and his colleagues suggest the decline of electoral competition is caused by factors other than redistricting. “Americans are increasingly living in communities and neighborhoods whose residents share their values and they are increasingly voting for candidates that share those values,” they write.

But consider the research of Thomas L. Brunell of the University of Texas at Dallas. Mr. Brunell’s piece, in the same volume of “PS,” titled “Rethinking Redistricting: How Drawing Uncompetitive Districts Eliminates Gerrymanders, Enhances Representation, and Improves Attitudes toward Congress,” raises some equally provocative points. He says that while enhanced electoral competition may have some advantages, maximizing tightly contested districts also maximizes the number of people who vote for a losing candidate. Mr. Brunell argues drawing more uncompetitive districts maximizes the number of “winners” among voters and would raise satisfaction with “our Members of Congress and Congress as an institution.”

Both of these articles significantly challenge the conventional wisdom of political reformers. “Good government” advocates might want to reconsider the current orthodoxy about the benefits of redistricting to achieve electoral competition. They may have embraced a questionable tactic to achieve an undesirable goal. Maybe the wound on the body politic inflicted by redistricting isn’t festering at all.

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