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Redistricting reform and competition: lessons from decline in competitive states in presidential races

by Rob Richie // Published March 1, 2006
I've been involved in an important effort to establish a national popular vote for president through action in the states, an important and timely reform plan launched recently. See: www.nationalpopularvote.com.

One of FairVote's goals over the past year has been to draw attention to what's made the Electoral College system more destructive than ever before to basic democratic principles of equality and majority rule. To that end, we've released a new report called Presidential Election Inequality, available in hard copy and on-line at www.fairvote.org/presidential.

As oral arguments take place in the Texas redistricting case and we see the likely hyperbole about the impact of gerrymandering on political competition, I thought it valuable to share one insight from our report -- one that supports FairVote's argument that redistricting practices certainly have an anti-competitiveness impact, but a far more limited one than many backers suggest.

Why use presidential races? Presidential elections provide helpful insight into the issue of redistricting and competition due to:

  • the bizarre nature of our state-by-state Electoral College system, where the results in 51 separate contests are important and, at least in battlegrounds, contested
  • the major party candidates clearly have great access to resources, so campaign spending cannot explain the failure of one party to make inroads in another party's territory
  • states don't change their borders, meaning that changes in results over time are not due to gerrymandering, but to changes in voting patterns.
In our report we look at the presidential elections in each state and the District of Columbia since 1960, using a definition of partisanship based on what we project would be the result in that state if the national partisan vote had been 50%-50% between the major parties that year. What we find is very telling for supporting our contention that the post-Cold War period moved the nation into the final steps of a partisan realignment that had taken place over nearly a century, during which time there was a near complete reversal of each party's base of support, with natural lags in some states -- and that it is this solidifying of political geography and partisan consistency in federal races that was the biggest reason for the locking down of our congressional election system, moving it from one that was highly unresponsive to one that is now nearly completely unresponsive.

This data shows that the number of competitive states in presidential has dropped both steadily and sharply since 1988. Given that congressional districts tend to be more homogenous (more definitively rural or urban), these patterns are all the more pronounced in many districts.

The report has plenty of good data and analysis (again, at www.fairvote.org/presidential), and I have a spreadsheet for the 44-year period that I'd be happy to send to anyone who's interested in working with it. Here's a summary of one trend below -- note that the chart also shows why the case for a national popular vote is very strong for both our biggest states and our smallest states, although every category of state is in general doing poorly.

What does this mean for FairVote? It means that if we as a people believe in the principle of voter equality and the importance of voters being able to hold representatives accountable, we should have a national popular vote for president (ideally by majority vote with instant runoff voting) and some method of proportional voting in legislatures that, like a national popular vote, doesn't consign many voters to no-choice, meaningless elections.

The Numbers

Of the 11 states with 15 or more electors in 2004:

1960 - 10 of these 11 states within a 9% partisan division (all but Georgia) 1976 - 10 of these 11 states within a 9% partisan division (all but Georgia) 2004 - only 4 of these 11 states within a 9% partisan division

Of 13 states with 9 to 15 electors in 2004:

1960 - 7 of these 13 states within a 9% partisan division 1976 - 6 of these 13 states within a 9% partisan division 2004 - 6 of these 13 states within a 9% partisan division

Of 14 states with 9 to 15 electors:

1960 - 8 of these 14 states within a 9% partisan division 1976 - 8 of these 14 states within a 9% partisan division 2004 - 5 of these 14 states within a 9% partisan division

Of 13 states (including DC) with 4 or fewer electors

1960 - 6 of these 13 states within a 9% partisan division 1976 - 5 of these 13 states within a 9% partisan division 2004 - 1 of these 13 states within a 9% partisan division