Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that redistricting reform is a bit of a pet issue for me, so hopefully it won't come as too much of a surprise that I think Matthew Yglesias's contrarian approach to the subject is rather incorrect. Yglesias states that
As a general matter, gerrymandering is less important to the declining competitiveness of congressional elections than is generally believed. State boundaries haven't changed at all in decades, but Senate races are becoming less competitive, too. The main problem here is that elections are becoming increasingly expensive. Since the parties have only so much cash to spread around, they tend to target only a few races, leaving most of the country grossly uncompetitive. If elections were free, you would just run conservative Democrats in Republican-leaning districts and moderate Republicans in Democratic-leaning ones and most races would be competitive. But of course while public financing of elections is a good idea, it's also very unpopular.
Now, I'm not really against publicly funded elections per se (although it's always struck me as the kind of program that would have to be very cleverly implemented to avoid the twin dangers of abuse and irrelevance). However, all the public financing in the world won't let Republicans win in districts that have been shaped to maximize the advantage of Democratic legislatures, or vice versa. And this kind of vote-maximizing process has become significantly easier, more scientific, and more reliable in the past decade with the popularization of GIS software.

But back to why publicly financed campaigns probably won't change the status quo very much. If you think about diagrams like this one, it's clear that the success of abusive redistricting efforts is proportional to legislators' abilities to predict the voting patterns of their constituents (in the case of the example, the red and blue dots). In other words, the success of abusive redistricting efforts is proportional to the political polarization of the area you're trying to gerrymander. And here we get into the vicious cycle of gerrymandering - districts tailored to be safe for one political party will tend to elect not very centrist candidates. A legislature made up of candidates from gerrymandered districts will be polarized, not very good at compromising on substantive issues, and in all likelihood will have a slim majority party so focused on perpetuating their rule that little things like "representative democracy" fall by the wayside. The majority party in such a legislature will be good at two things: passing laws without much if any input from the minority party (which has a further, and significant, polarizing effect on voters of both sides), and conducting increasingly abusive redistricting sessions. The more heavily polarized and gerrymandered electorate will, in turn, send to power another polarized legislature in the next election cycle.

Of course, in the real world, the dynamics of elections are more complex than in the scenario I outlined and can be significantly swayed by the ill-concealed blowjob, among other things. But there's no doubt that the positive feedback effects of gerrymandering do exist, and deeply undermine the ability of Congress to adopt policies aimed at satisfying the country's interests, rather than the interests of the base of the majority party (needless to say, the same applies for state legislatures). When you throw in the fact that the representatives of gerrymandered districts are essentially unaccountable for all but the most egregious incompetence and/or corruption, I think it's pretty clear that redistricting reform of some stripe (here's one, for example) ought to be a top priority for any little-d democrat. And given that "85 percent of House incumbents won by landslide majorities of more than 60 percent" in the last election cycle, I'm not sure how the Yglesias plan to improve electoral competitiveness through publicly financing elections could have much of an effect on elections without costing so much as to be fiscally (not to mention politically) prohibitive.

EDIT: Yes, Matt made the point that Senate elections have also become less competitive in recent years (a fact to which this chart seems to attest). I think a lot of this has to do with the politically polarizing effects of gerrymandering I talked about in the original post, although the rising cost of elections has certainly been a contributing factor as well. It's worth pointing out though that political parties have been getting much better at raising cash, which sort of mutes the impact of Matt's explanation (and the utility of his remedy) for electoral uncompetitiveness in America.


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