Santul Nerkar

1. Introduction

A contemporary critique of American politics has been the decreasing competitiveness of congressional campaigns, both in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress. Electoral competitiveness has measurably decreased in American politics over the past half-century, and recent election years have simply accelerated this trend. Out of 435 races for the U.S. House in 2014, only 30 could be classified as “competitive” (Washington Post 2014). According to Ballotpedia, in 2004 only five incumbents were unseated out of a total of 401 House races, and only 22 races featured a deciding margin of 10 percent or less. The electoral markers had not improved by any measure in 2014, as only 6.8% of U.S. House races were competitive (Washington Post 2014). The extreme lack of competition in both U.S. House races and state races has even prompted international criticism, leading members from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to castigate the United States’ electoral realities (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, 2005).

The implications of decreasing electoral competitiveness are troubling: Fewer contested elections can mean a less engaged citizenry and politicians who are unresponsive to constituent demands, thus undermining robust democracy. This is no trivial matter, as Ferris, Winer, and Groffman (2015) identify three chief reasons why liberal democracy is desirable over other forms of government: 1) Democracy is a system of government where everyone’s voice is heard, and is a desirable end goal in itself, as it aids individual liberty; 2) Democracy creates a dialogue among the citizenry that contributes to the understanding of voters’ preferences; 3) Democracy improves the responsiveness of political parties to the demands of the electorate. Thus, if we use electoral competitiveness as a measure of the robustness of a democracy, it is clear that preserving the competitive balance of elections is a goal worth pursuing. Following from this conclusion, it is important to consider possible impediments to electoral competitiveness.

Just as the decline in electoral competitiveness has increasingly received both scholarly and popular attention, so has gerrymandering, which is the redrawing of districts to give a political party an advantage. Most recently, Supreme Court deliberations on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in light of Wisconsin Republican’s 2011 efforts to redraw district lines have become a national story of interest (NPR 2017). Gerrymandering has also received attention due to its perceived linkage with the  problem of increased partisan polarization, as Pietro Nivola writes in Red and Blue Nation: “The shockingly low level of competitiveness in the two U.S. House elections following the post-2000 round of redistricting…has reinforced the widespread view that gerrymandering is responsible for partisan polarization.” However, while gerrymandering has received recent attention due to Republicans disproportionately increasing their political power relative to their vote share, the story of American gerrymandering is as old as the republic itself. Therefore, it is necessary to briefly investigate the history of partisan gerrymandering in the United States before evaluating its effects on modern electoral competitiveness.

Gerrymandering’s etymology can be traced back to the practices of former Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who redrew political districts in the run-up to elections in 1812 to benefit his party. By controlling redistricting committees, American politicians have effectively used gerrymandering as a tool to ensure the political survival of themselves and their constituents. Gerrymandering as a process is relatively straightforward and is dominated by state legislatures, as it is they who bear the chief responsibility of redrawing district lines, requiring only a governor’s approval for implementation of the new boundaries. Intuitively, it is easy to see how a Republican-dominated state government could redraw voting districts to favor solely Republican interests, or, conversely, how Democrats could bias the map in their electoral favor. The two most fundamental components of gerrymandering are “cracking” and “packing.” “Cracking” refers to the process by which voters in a particular demographic or voting bloc are spread out, thus experiencing a dilution of their influence on the election. “Packing,” on the other hand, refers to the clustering of voters in a particular demographic or voting bloc into a small number of districts, thus diminishing that group’s influence on the results of the election. Political parties have used both strategies to increase their seat share in elected office, under a relatively constant vote share. Critics of gerrymandering have dubbed the process “cracking, packing, and kidnapping” (Politico, 2011).

As it pertains to electoral competition, the constitutional critique of gerrymandering bears relevance. In particular, racial gerrymandering has been argued in several court cases, including Reynolds vs Sims (1964), as representing a violation of  the Voting Rights Act by increasing “vote dilution.” Davis vs Bandemer (1986) advanced the issue even further, stipulating that gerrymandering creates an “unconstitutional vote dilution” (Briffault, 2005). Vote dilution has consequences beyond the suppression of individual voting rights, however, and it can possibly decrease electoral competitiveness by increasing the number of “safe” districts, thereby decreasing citizen (electoral) engagement as well as general civic engagement.

Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the subsequent increase in electoral participation by minorities such as African-Americans, the phenomenon of racial gerrymandering emerged in American Politics. In fact, racial gerrymandering in a modern context is inextricably tied to the traditional matter of partisan gerrymandering, as African-Americans and other racial minorities are most likely to vote for the Democratic Party. The inception of so-called “majority-minority” districts has had the benefit of advancing the interests of minority groups, while, at the same time, minimizing those same groups’ overall influence on legislation. David Lublin argues in “The Paradox of Representation: Racial Gerrymandering and Minority Interests in Congress” that despite racial redistricting bringing about more representatives from minority demographics, the policy has, on average, “…made the House less likely to adopt legislation favored by African-Americans” (Lublin, 1). Such a paradox falls in line with the realities of “packing,” as minority voters may succeed in electing a leader who represents their interests but fail to have that leader turn their interests into favorable legislation.

Lublin’s claim suggests a deeper connection between gerrymandering and political participation, and, by extension, the competitiveness of political races. If voters do not think they have a chance of being represented in a gerrymandered political system, why would they vote? More pertinently, the increased prevalence of “safe” districts as a result of cracking and packing leads voters to surmise that they are left with fewer competitive elections with which to influence policy outcomes. Having established electoral competition as an important and relevant topic in American politics, and gerrymandering as a potential causal variable, I now turn to designing a way to evaluate the impact that gerrymandering has on electoral outcomes.

2. Research Methods

My primary research question is relatively straightforward: Does gerrymandering have an effect on electoral competitiveness in American congressional elections? To best answer this question, I perform a comprehensive review of the existing gerrymandering and electoral competitiveness literature to determine what the balance of studies suggest. This is advantageous in that it aggregates a broad range of studies, minimizing biases in data or methodology and increasing the set of observations as well as outside variables. I also consult a variety of different sources to inform me on the histories and realities of both the competitiveness of American congressional elections, on a state and national level, as well as the extensiveness of political gerrymandering. These tasks best help answer some of my secondary research questions, which include: What is a standard definition of gerrymandering? What are some other possible explanations for declining electoral competition? The best database for information on state elections is contained on ballotpedia.org, which is a nonpartisan online political encyclopedia that has compiled a wealth of information on the results of state and local elections. While I refer to electoral competitiveness declining for the last fifty years, the data specific to ballotpedia that I source is compiled over the period from 1974-2014. It is also necessary to provide some background on “electoral competitiveness” before more fully evaluating the extent of gerrymandering’s impact on the closeness of political races. Per standard definitions used by political scientists, a “competitive race” is defined as one with a winning margin of less than ten percent. Under this definition, electoral competitiveness has declined extraordinarily over the past fifty years, in elections for both state legislatures and for U.S. Congress.

With regards to gerrymandering, instead of using a quantitative measure of how “compact” a district is, I focus on periods of large-scale redistricting that took place in the years 1982, 1992, and 2002. If gerrymandering has a significant impact on the competitiveness of races, then we would expect to see a relatively sharp decline in the competitiveness of races following the decennial redistricting efforts. While this method is relatively limited in its scope, as it does not analyze longer-term effects of partisan redistricting on electoral competitiveness, it does investigate a critical aspect of the purported link between gerrymandering and elections: that is, if gerrymandering orchestrates lower electoral competitiveness immediately following redistricting.

In addition to the data mentioned above, I also consult data compiled by political scientists with similar interests either in the causes for declining electoral competitiveness or regarding the effects of gerrymandering more generally. A significant result of my research is that there is no single variable that can account for the phenomenon of competitive drift. As a result, my findings are largely based on an engagement with the extant literature on electoral competitiveness and gerrymandering, as well as consultation with other relevant data.

3. Literature Review/Findings

Ballotpedia’s findings on the results of the lack of competition of state legislative elections only add to the broader picture of declining electoral competitiveness. According to the database, less than five percent of the United States had state legislative elections where districts were won by a margin of five percentage points or fewer. Additionally, 61 percent of people in 2014 lived in a district that did not feature a contested primary, and the 2014 House elections witnessed the highest rate of uncontested elections in the state legislature than any other year in the period 1974-2014. (Ballotpedia, 2015)

Abramowitz, Alexander, and Gunning (2005) explore three different hypotheses for declining electoral participation in their influential paper, “Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in U.S. House Elections,” taking a national scope to the issue of the decline of electoral competitiveness. Specifically, Abramowitz et. al test a “Redistricting Hypothesis,” which examines whether declining competition is the result of gerrymandering, a “Partisan Polarization Hypothesis,” which evaluates whether increased polarization between the two major parties has played an outsized role in determining electoral competition, and finally an “Incumbency Hypothesis,” which tests the theory that declining electoral competition is a result of the growing benefits of incumbency. Abramowitz et. al find that the redistricting hypothesis (gerrymandering) does not convincingly account for lessening electoral competition at the national level. The authors argue that if gerrymandering definitively brought about the steep decline in electoral competitiveness, then we would expect to see sharp increases in the number of “safe districts” and a similarly sharp decrease in the propensity of competitive districts immediately after redistricting in the years 1982, 1992, and 2002. Instead, the relative proportions of each district did not change significantly after each of the redistricting years, indicating that gerrymandering has had a negligible impact on the competitiveness of national races. The authors find much greater evidence for the relative impact of both partisan polarization and the incumbency advantage on the competitiveness of national elections.

Other scholars have concurred that while redistricting may appear to have a sizeable impact on electoral competitiveness, such extrapolations can be overblown. King (1989) finds evidence for the claim that redistricting has measurable impacts, stating that the process affects the responsiveness of the system in the short-run; however, the author proposes that the “vanishing marginals” are not due to redistricting, as statistical analyses could not prove a strong correlation. Maskage, Winburn, and Wright (2012) decry the connections between redistricting and declining electoral competitiveness, saying that gerrymandering’s role in the overall trend has been much smaller and concentrated than popular wisdom may suggest.

While Abramowitz et. al find that vanishing electoral competitiveness is not brought about by gerrymandering, other scholarship has found a stronger correlation between redistricting and declining electoral competition. For example, Tufte (1973) found a relationship between redistricting and declining competition using a variety of statistical and disaggregating techniques. In the period between 1956 and 1970, Tufte found that the proportion of competitive U.S. House elections dropped from 20% to 13% and further theorized that “…reapportionment rulings have given incumbents new opportunities to construct secure districts for themselves”  (Tufte, p. 551). Tufte sees the redistricting problem as a double-edged sword: Control of the redistricting process by one party can yield district shapes that blatantly favor one party, yet bipartisan gerrymandering can render virtually all district races in a state as uncompetitive.

Further scholarship that has linked gerrymandering to a decline in the prevalence of competitive districts includes analysis by Owen and Groffman (1988), who find that as parties wrest control over the redistricting process across multiple states, they are wont to craft voting districts that spread out the range of voters from opposing constituencies. As discussed earlier, such a tactic is called “cracking.” Swain, Borelli, and Reed (1998) find that, as a result of redistricting in 1990, there was an increase of 21 Republican districts and 17 Democratic districts, along with a decline in 17 evenly split districts. McDonald (2006) offers a direct rebuttal to Abramowitz et. al, challenging several of their empirical claims about the relationship between redistricting and electoral competitiveness as well as the efficacy of non-partisan redistricting committees in ensuring more competitive districts. The crux of McDonald’s contention lies in his disparate research methods, as he used data from the 1988 presidential election to measure electoral competitiveness while Abramowitz et. al resorted to data taken from the 1992 election, shortly after the decennial redistricting.

Other possible explanations for the decline in electoral competition include changes in individual voting behavior, as Ferejohn (2014) posited. Another revisiting of the incumbency hypothesis by Erikson (1971) asks us to consider the control that incumbent politicians have over setting the “rules of the game” as it pertains to races. Specifically, Erikson cites data that indicates over a 44-year period, incumbents were much more likely to win elections than non-incumbents, after controlling for presidential voting. Hart and Munger (1989) looked to technological advancements as possible explainers of declining electoral competitiveness, finding that historical evidence suggests that as the “time opportunity cost” related to traveling to a voting district decreases, the average margin of victory increases. Abramowitz (1991) had also argued earlier that the low level of competitiveness in recent House elections (1986 and 1988) had arisen from the increasing costliness of running a campaign for the House, as well as the increasing difficulty for challengers to raise requisite funds to beat political incumbents. Carson, Engstrom, and Roberts (1987) explored the other half of the hypothesis, finding that electoral competitiveness actually increased following redistricting efforts. This is due to the rate of candidate entry, which increases in periods directly following partisan redistricting (i.e. 1982, 1992, 2002). These findings lend further credence to the argument that gerrymandering has had inconsistent measured impacts on the competitiveness of elections.

While compelling intuition and circumstantial evidence suggest that redistricting, which inevitably results in partisan gerrymandering, is the driving force behind decreasing electoral competitiveness in U.S. House and state legislative elections, I do not find that the empirical evidence indicates that gerrymandering makes districts less competitive. Though it is indisputable that one can find instances of gerrymandering making the median American voting district less competitive, as well as increasing the number of “safe” districts, the average district has not seen its competitiveness diminish as a result of partisan redistricting. Entering my research, I established that to answer my primary question, it would have to be indisputable that redistricting processes had taken elections off of their baseline course of action. That is, a district that became less competitive as a result of gerrymandering would see its competitiveness decline immediately after redistricting took place. Given the extant data and literature on both gerrymandering and electoral competition alike, it is not possible to surmise that gerrymandering has had a causal impact on declining electoral competitiveness.

Furthermore, there is more than ample research to suggest that other factors, such as the increasing magnitude of the incumbency advantage (measured in nonfinancial terms), partisan polarization, and the increasing costs to challenge incumbents, play a larger role than gerrymandering in driving down the competitiveness of electoral races. Among the literature I consulted, the only authors that offered compelling evidence of redistricting swinging the competitive balance of a set of elections were Swain et. al, who arrived at their findings largely by consulting the results of the 1988 elections, not the 1992 elections immediately after the decennial redistricting. Gerrymandering can certainly account for individual races that tend toward uncompetitiveness; however, it does not account for why there has been a steady decline in electoral competitiveness outside of years of partisan redistricting, nor does it explain the relative jump in competitiveness in some voting districts following redrawing efforts.

4. Conclusion

Perhaps the only agreed-upon claim regarding the declining levels of electoral competitiveness in the United States is the statement that competitiveness is actually declining, and even within that paradigm there exists disagreement over the definition of “competitive.” These findings raise some important questions: why are there so many uncontested elections, on both a national (U.S. House of Representatives) and a local (state legislative) level? If gerrymandering does not affect the competitive balance of elections, then is partisan redistricting an issue that policymakers should be concerned with at all? And finally, what policy steps should lawmakers and activists take to ensure greater electoral competition and political responsiveness?

I have found that uncontested elections have arisen not entirely outside of gerrymandering’s impact, but more in line with trends towards increased polarization, an incumbency advantage, and changing voting patterns both among ordinary citizens and among elected representatives. Gerrymandering may reinforce these biases and make efforts to run incumbents out of office more cumbersome, but the source of the difficulty in maintaining competitiveness does not lie with partisan redistricting per se. There is no singular cause for the rise to near-obscene levels of lack of competition in American Electoral Politics. However, an explanation that combines partisan politics, incumbency, financial constraints, and redistricting are likely the closest to the truth about electoral competition over the last fifty years.

Outside of its implications for electoral competitiveness, gerrymandering is a pertinent topic for policymakers and voters alike. Gerrymandering has been shown to depress voter turnout, skew election results towards increased disproportionality, as well as violate provisions of the Voting Rights Act and Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. From that standpoint, it is clear that gerrymandering is a practice sacrosanct to American politics, even if it is not the primary driving force behind declining electoral competitiveness. Perhaps it is even true that the way in which scholars approach gerrymandering as an issue falls short of improving public welfare, as Woolgar and Pawluch (1985) argue in an influential sociological examination of gerrymandering. My findings do not dispute that gerrymandering is a problem that needs to be addressed in American politics, as its impact extends far beyond the alleged effect on electoral competitiveness. Rather, I propose that gerrymandering should be understood in its own right. Furthermore, it may be useful to reach a scholarly consensus on the relative acceptability of differing levels of gerrymandering (i.e., is all partisan redistricting unacceptable?), as well as whether it is productive to establish measures such as “compactness” when evaluating how gerrymandered a voting district is.

The answer to the final question is an amalgamation of policy options, the ordering of which rely on the resources available. On one hand, funding challengers to incumbents is a costly task, and one that requires coordination among a party across several regions and competing financial interests, but on the other hand, the American public may decide that lack of competitiveness in elections has hindered its ability to voice concerns to lawmakers and ensure proper responsiveness from the system. American political systems and institutions are not designed to rapidly move toward change; in fact, the structure is designed to push back against capricious attempts to alter the democracy into something unrecognizable. While this feature of American government protects the republic against short-term momentous changes, it ironically precludes the system from enacting measures that might be needed to ensure the survival of democracy.

Many have pointed to the current Supreme Court Case on gerrymandering as a means of correcting deleterious elements of American democracy, whose legitimacy has been under fire since the election of President Donald Trump. However, even if the Court rules against the gerrymandering that took place in Wisconsin, the redistricting process will still be in control of most state legislatures and their governors. Furthermore, as it pertains to electoral competitiveness, the Supreme Court’s sole focus in gerrymandering cases has been the purported victimization of minorities as well as gerrymandering’s effects on the deviation between vote share and seat share. This is to say that declining electoral competitiveness is neither a priority of the Supreme Court, nor is it something that would likely be altered by the Court’s forthcoming ruling, as the extant literature and data bear out.

An ideal democracy is one that affords each of its citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns to elected representatives. As long as elections serve to reinforce pre-existing political realities without much room for change, the United States will be hindered in its mission to form a more perfect union. Unfortunately, it is far from certain that just focusing on redistricting will do much to rectify this ever-growing threat to American democracy.

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