Re­port: ‘Swing’ dis­tricts evap­o­rate as vot­ers move

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY DAVID SHERFINSKI

Congress’s in­creas­ing po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion owes more to de­mo­graphic trends than it does to par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing of House dis­tricts, ac­cord­ing to a new anal­y­sis this month that chal­lenges the con­ven­tional wis­dom on why Capi­tol Hill is so frac­tious.

The num­ber of true “swing” dis­tricts has dropped more than 50 per­cent com­pared to 20 years ago, from 164 seats down to just 72 af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, said the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port.

But of the 92 swing dis­tricts that “van­ished,” more than 80 per­cent of them dis­ap­peared be­cause vot­ers moved around, in a process de­mog­ra­phers call “self-sort­ing” — not be­cause law­mak­ers drew them­selves safer dis­tricts, the anal­y­sis said.

“As it turns out, ger­ry­man­der­ing wasn’t as much of a fac­tor in the House’s po­lar­iza­tion as some re­dis­trict­ing re­form ad­vo­cates might ar­gue,” the re­port’s au­thors said.

The me­dian Demo­cratic-held seat now tilts 14 points more to­ward the Democrats than the na­tional av­er­age, which is dou­ble the 7-point dif­fer­ence from 1997, the re­port said. And the me­dian GOP seat is now 11 points “more Repub­li­can” than the na­tional av­er­age, com­pared to a 7-point dif­fer­ence 20 years ago.

Kyle Kondik, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst with the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia’s Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics, said that the power of in­cum­bency and the geo­graphic con­cen­tra­tions of Democrats in cities have also played sig­nif­i­cant fac­tors in the cur­rent makeup of the U.S. House, which has been in rel­a­tively safe Repub­li­can con­trol since 2011.

“Democrats end up wast­ing a lot of votes,” Mr. Kondik said. “Some of that has to do with re­dis­trict­ing, but it also speaks to the con­cen­tra­tion of Demo­cratic vot­ers in tightly packed ur­ban ar­eas.”

Re­dis­trict­ing, which is the re­draw­ing of con­gres­sional lines to ac­count for pop­u­la­tion changes in the U.S. Cen­sus taken every 10 years, is con­trolled by law­mak­ers in most states.

The con­gres­sional map, which has streaks of blue along the coasts and in ur­ban spots, with red dom­i­nat­ing the in­te­rior of the coun­try, shows just how ide­ol­ogy and ge­og­ra­phy have played out.

Some pro­po­nents of re­forms say politi­cians tend to try to de­sign their dis­tricts to be eas­ily winnable — mean­ing vot­ers of one party end up packed into a district, of­ten­times leav­ing vot­ers of the other ma­jor party packed into a neigh­bor­ing district.

Those groups dis­puted the Cook find­ings.

“Ex­treme par­ti­san re­dis­trict­ing” is in­deed the driver be­hind the in­creas­ingly par­ti­san dis­tricts, said Kathay Feng, the na­tional re­dis­trict­ing di­rec­tor for Com­mon Cause, an ad­vo­cacy group that has pushed for re­forms to the process.

She said that re­cent re­dis­trict­ing ef­forts have had a par­tic­u­larly strong ef­fect be­cause law­mak­ers have in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated tech­nolo­gies they can lever­age to craft “en­dur­ing highly par­ti­san dis­tricts.”

David Da­ley, a se­nior fel­low with the group FairVote, said ger­ry­man­der­ing — the pe­jo­ra­tive term used gen­er­ally to re­fer to par­ti­san-driven re­dis­trict­ing — and ge­og­ra­phy feed on each other.

“All are en­twined, and all act as sort of ac­cel­er­ants on each other,” he said.

His group wants to see vot­ers able to rank their choice of can­di­dates in a process of grad­ual elim­i­na­tion, with the idea be­ing that can­di­dates who ap­peal to a broader swath of vot­ers will ul­ti­mately make the fi­nal cut.

“You would elect a wider range ide­o­log­i­cally,” he said. “The num­ber of swing seats is so low right now that it has drained our pol­i­tics of mean­ing­ful com­pe­ti­tion.”

Some re­form ad­vo­cates also pin a gen­eral rise in par­ti­san­ship and grid­lock in the coun­try on re­dis­trict­ing, with the idea be­ing that many in­cum­bents now have more of an in­cen­tive to steel them­selves against a pri­mary chal­lenge by pro­tect­ing their left or right flank, rather than try­ing to ap­peal to the mid­dle of the elec­torate.

“It’s not that every­body needs to move to the mid­dle,” Ms. Feng said. “We have cre­ated a dough­nut, and the mid­dle has fallen out.”

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