Amer­i­cans are ‘self-sort­ing’ into po­lar­iza­tion, says re­port

Ger­ry­man­der­ing con­sid­ered less of a fac­tor

The Washington Times Daily - - POLITICS - BY SALLY PER­SONS

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 goaround 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.”

“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.”

— Mike Hersh, Pro­gres­sive Democrats of Amer­ica

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