Redistricting has been called the blood sport of American politics. Fists have been thrown, lawsuits filed and the political debate coarsened by the decennial process of drawing congressional districts.
For years, pundits have blamed increasing polarization in Washington on redistricting, saying that creating seats that are safe for a Republican or Democrat means races where the primary is the real election, and candidates run to the extremes to win.
But new research says the pundits have it wrong, and the polarization is more an effect of Americans ideologically sorting themselves, moving to live with like-minded folks.
A Cook Political Report noted earlier this year, the number of true “swing” districts dropped more than 50 percent in the past 20 years going from 164 districts to 72 in the past election.
The reason, according to the report, was people moving around the country in the past two decades in a process called “self-sorting.” The analysis says, “As it turns out, gerrymandering wasn’t as much of a factor in the House’s polarization as some redistricting reform advocates might argue.”
Justin Levitt, law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who studies redistricting, said that although the battles over the maps can be “vicious” they are not the main contributor to political polarization.
“I think it has contributed to polarization, but it’s a relatively small factor,” he said.
Mr. Levitt, who also worked as a lawyer on former President Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, said sometimes redrawn districts allow for centrists to emerge because lawmakers don’t have to fear challenges from the other side of the aisle.
“One, you can legislate less within the Democratic Party — and two, it’s safer to have ideological diversity because not every person is needed on every single vote. You see a little more ideological centrism,” he said.
A Pew Research Center study found a similar conclusion in a county-level study conducted last fall among voters. Those in counties where their party was politically dominant were more open to seeking common ground than those living in more mixed partisan counties.
States redraw their congressional districts every 10 years, after the latest census. Beginning several decades ago the political parties, armed by new data tools, began to draw lines that maximized their gains — taking states that were fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and creating maps that produced a decided skew in the congressional delegation.
The courts have said it’s all legal, but academics, politicians and pundits have debated the effects on cooperation and legislating in Washington.
Mike Hersh, communications director for Progressive Democrats of America, said redistricting has skewed politics.
“Majority Democratic states like Michigan and Wisconsin have far more Republican than Democratic House members. Democratic candidates for the House won more votes in aggregate, but Republicans enjoy a substantial majority in the House. This is largely due to partisan gerrymandering,” he said.
He also said “safe” GOP districts force Republicans to run to the right to ward off primary challengers.
“On the Republican side, these heated primaries tend to favor more rigid, doctrinaire or extreme candidates. Also, in order to win reelection, incumbent officeholders often fear a primary challenge from the right, and may therefore feel pressure to move even further to the right,” he said.
Mr. Hersh said he doesn’t think Democrats face the same pressure, saying his party actually pushes for more moderate candidates.
Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, disputed that, saying both parties face primaries with pressure from the wings.
“Aggressive, contentious primaries on both sides, on all levels, have nothing to do with redistricting,” he said.
He also challenged Mr. Hersh’s contention that the GOP is using control of legislatures to steal seats that should be won by Democrats.
He pointed to states where Democratic-dominated legislatures have drawn the lines, yet the GOP has done well in those districts.
“It wasn’t the line, it was the candidate,” said Mr. Walter. “Republicans won on Democratic lines.”
He also said if polarization were because of district lines, the Senate would be far more bipartisan.
Some states have moved to take the redistricting process out of the hands of the legislature, turning the duty over to special commissions that in many cases are told to ignore political outcomes.
Results have been mixed.
The next round of redistricting will happen before the 2022 elections.
Mr. Levitt, the law professor, said the last go-around ahead of the 2012 elections focused less on polarization and more on helping vulnerable incumbents keep their seats.
Mr. Levitt cited 40 congressional districts where Republicans were deemed vulnerable — meaning freshman Republicans in 2010 who won Democratic seats in competitive districts. Redistricting helped 18 Republicans improve their position in states where the GOP controlled the line-drawing.
“Those 18 members include districts for Blake Farenthold in TX-27, which went from a 2-point Republican advantage in 2010 to a 13-point Republican advantage after redistricting, Lou Barletta in PA-11, which went from a 4-point Democratic advantage in 2010 to a 6-point Republican advantage after redistricting,” he said.
“Not all of the gains were that large, but there sure seemed like a systematic effort to help out the new 2010 freshmen where Republicans were in control of the process.”
• Sally Persons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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