Florida looks very close for president again this year. Perhaps not as close as in 2000, the year of the hanging chads and butterfly ballots, but competitive enough that President Bush and John Kerry will each have campaigned there numerous times before the contest ends. And Florida's battle for a U.S. Senate seat seems destined for a close finish as well.
When it comes to the legislature, however, it's a very different story. Republicans are a mortal lock to retain control of the state House and Senate, because Democratic voters have been jammed into so few districts that there is no way for them to break out of minority status. In what is otherwise one of the most exciting campaign years in modern Florida history, the legislature is nothing but a big, lopsided snooze.
How lopsided? Of 22 contests for the state Senate, only six feature candidates from each of the two major parties, and just 34 of the 120 House races will have two-party competition. Even where there is nominal competition, it doesn't amount to much. Two years ago, the average margin of victory in both House and Senate races was 21 percent. Incredibly, the winning margins were, on average, even higher in open districts, showing more clearly than anything how much the districts themselves favor one party's chances.
"In the old days, under the former Soviet Union, they held elections and we belittled them because Communists would run unopposed," says Scot Schaufnagel, a University of Central Florida political scientist. "Here in Florida, 90 percent of the time we don't have any meaningful competition. It's tough to pin that all on redistricting, but clearly meaningful competition is very difficult to find and it starts with redistricting."
There is nothing anomalous about Florida. All over the country this fall, elections for state legislatures are largely non-events. This is just as true where Democrats have the upper hand as it is in Republican states. California's politically bifurcated map may be the most prominent example, but Democrats have worked their advantage wherever they can. Indiana, for example, is likely to vote for the Bush-Cheney ticket next month by a wide margin. But Democrats aren't particularly worried about holding their majority in the state House, no matter what the overall voting trend may be. Recent history is on their side. Two years ago, Republicans took 56 percent of the statewide House vote, and went to bed on election night believing they had recaptured the chamber. But Democrats had drawn the individual districts carefully enough to thwart those ambitions, and when all the votes were counted, there was a one-vote Democratic advantage.
What the Democrats had done was to implement classic gerrymandering strategy, as it has been practiced for the past 200 years. They conceded a third of the districts to Republicans, packing those districts full of huge GOP majorities and rendering thousands of GOP votes superfluous. They then carved up the rest of the state to link Democratic precincts together and create a legislative majority.
The map is likely to work its same magic this year. There aren't more than a half-dozen serious House contests out of 100 seats, and the few that are in play tend to favor the Democrats. "As a result of redistricting, there are so many noncompetitive seats," says Ed Feigenbaum, editor of Indiana Legislative Insight. "Republicans say '54 in 04,' but I think the Democrats will come out of this with 51 seats and maybe 52."
Nearly 80 percent of all state legislative seats are up for election around the country this year. On paper, legislative politics look as close as they could possibly be. In 2002, Republicans pulled ahead of Democrats in the total number of seats held nationally for the first time in half a century, but by the narrowest of margins--only about five dozen, out of 7,400 total across the 50 states. This year, there are 23 legislative chambers where a switch of three seats or fewer would change the party that holds the majority.
Looking at the country district by district, however, the reality is that true competition exists in only a tiny fraction of places. Even where political strength is closely balanced in the aggregate, the vast majority of individual districts are lopsidedly drawn in favor of one party or the other, engendering no real contest at the polls.
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are all battleground states in presidential voting, but they are not battlegrounds in the contest for legislative power. Republicans control them; Democrats haven't a prayer of gaining a majority in any of the chambers in those states. The redrawing of the lines that followed the 2000 Census is the primary culprit.
The ability to create the desired political effect increases every decade with advances in technology, making it easier for legislators and advocacy groups to target partisan precincts and predict their likely voting behavior for years to come. "Dummymanders"--sociologist Bernard Grofman's term for overly greedy gerrymanders that backfire-- have become increasingly rare as sophistication about redistricting grows.
Good redistricting software and powerful databases were available during the 1990s--and partisan gerrymanders certainly took place well before the dawn of the computer age--but this time around, mapmakers benefited from a technological advance that at first glance seems trivial: high-quality color printing. The subtly shaded maps that were possible in the latest redistricting round allowed legislative staff to cycle quickly through dozens of permutations until their legislative bosses were perfectly satisfied and the gerrymanders were airtight. One more traditional element of uncertainty was thereby removed.
AFTER THE VOTING
The new gerrymandering has political significance that goes far beyond the fall campaign. To an increasing extent, it governs the relations between the two parties when the legislature is in session. "You have more and more non-competitive and very liberal or very conservative districts where the only threat comes in a party primary," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor. "Therefore, there is simply less centrism, less moderation and less encouragement for legislators to compromise, just as we've seen in Congress."
In the musical "Annie," Daddy Warbucks instructs his secretary to "phone Al Smith and find out what Democrats eat." That joke doesn't even apply to many of today's legislatures. In Wisconsin, for example, Mark Pocan, who represents a liberal Assembly district in Madison, says that after a Republican friend was elected to the body and they dined out together, he "was called into the leadership office and told, 'You don't eat dinner with Democrats.'"
Wisconsin's Republican House speaker has taken over from the nonpartisan chief clerk the duty of signing off on staff hires. Republican requests are fulfilled first. Out of the hundreds of bills passed this year in that state, only a handful were sponsored by Democrats. Typically, if a Democrat wants her bill to win consideration, she has to try to find a friendly Republican to put his name on it. (Democrats were just as partisan when they were in control; some of their former leaders are now under indictment on charges stemming from a corruption scandal.)
When one-party legislative dominance becomes an accepted fact of life, the fight for power takes place entirely on that party's side. That was the case this year in Virginia, where internecine warfare broke out among GOP majorities in both chambers. Some Republicans broke with their party to support a tax increase originally proposed by the Democratic governor. As a result, opposing wings of the party are already gearing up for next year's elections, preparing and financing separate slates of candidates to do battle for the all- important GOP nominations.
The only legislative elections that matter now in Virginia are the primaries in the spring, not the general elections in November. As in Florida, about one third of Virginia's legislative contests weren't even challenged when the entire legislature came up for election last year. "It is a Republican state, but not by a 2-to-1 advantage," says Democratic state Representative Brian Moran. "Redistricting has clearly created disproportionate Republican representation."
In some states, redistricting has left the two parties roughly even in their battle for control of a legislative chamber but created so many safe districts that virtually all the competition still takes place over a handful of seats. That's the case in Maine, where Democrats control the state Senate by just one vote, but the vast majority of districts remain safe for one party or the other.
As a result of redistricting, Maine state Senator Michael Brennan, a Democrat who initially won his Portland seat in a special election hotly contested by both parties, now sits in a district that's going to give him an easy ride. Meanwhile, up the road in Augusta, Republican Karl Turner represents a redrawn district that's more certain to support the GOP. "Both of us had districts that could have been considered swing districts but are now solidly Democratic, in my case, or Republican in his," Brennan says. "Both parties are putting all their efforts into just a few districts."
In cases such as these, redistricting doesn't stifle competition by changing the partisan advantage but by essentially freezing it: creating safe seats for incumbents of both parties. The legendary example is New York's legislature, which has featured a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate for the past 30 years. Redistricting at the start of each decade merely serves to protect incumbents, bolstering the Democratic majority in one chamber and the Republican majority in the other, and maintaining the underlying division of power. That will be the case again this year.
What's interesting is that among the few legislative chambers that seem to be genuinely in play this fall (the Senate in Maine, the House in Vermont, Nevada and North Carolina, both chambers in Washington State), nearly all had their maps drawn by courts, commissions or divided governments--somebody other than legislators of a single party enjoying a free hand. "In every one of those cases, you've got clearly some sort of compromise of the redistricting process," says Michael McDonald, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, "something peculiar to that state that pushed it into the toss-up column."
The Georgia House of Representatives has a chance to change hands this year largely because a court created a more competitive set of districts. Georgia Democrats haven't won a majority of legislative votes since 1996, but they have been able to preserve their power up to now through redistricting. Even in 2002, when a strong Republican voting trend swept GOP candidates to victory in elections for governor and for the U.S. Senate, Democrats won a majority of the legislative contests.
Party defections by individual members later tilted Senate control to the Republicans, but the House remains in Democratic hands. A new court-ordered map imposed earlier this year has undone much of the Democratic gerrymandering. "The map that it replaced was a classic partisan gerrymander drawn by the Democrats," says University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. "They were trying to take a 45 or 47 percent share of the vote and turn it into a majority."
Even under the new map, however, it's not clear that the GOP can erase the Democrats' current advantage in one election, because more than 15 seats would have to change hands, and a fair number of Democratic incumbents may be able to win reelection at least once even in GOP-tilting districts. After they retire or are beaten, Republicans should reign in Georgia for quite a while (perhaps with the help of a map they'll draw themselves in time for the 2012 elections).
Turning to a court or commission to draw legislative districts is no guarantee of a nonpartisan approach. That point was underscored last year in Montana. The rules mandated a five-member commission to draw the lines, with each party allowed to choose two members, and a tie- breaking fifth member selected by the other four. But the commissioners couldn't agree on who the tie-breaker should be, and so the state Supreme Court intervened, appointing a fifth member who, it turned out, favored a Democratic-leaning map.
As a result, Republican districts are now overpopulated and Democratic districts are underpopulated, meaning Democrats used fewer people to make more districts favorable to their own side. "Every substantive vote was party line on the commission, and the Democrats just ramrodded the thing through," complains Chuck Denowh, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. "They did everything they could--I've got to tip my hat to them." The bottom line is that Democrats have a strong chance of taking over at least one of the Montana chambers this year.
THE BIG SORT
As much havoc as gerrymandering has caused in the current election process, some political scientists suggest that there is a less mischievous factor in the general decline of competition: natural demographic realignment. Voters, they say, are clustering together in partisan enclaves that make it difficult even for fair-minded mapmakers to draw many competitive districts.
Despite the rising number of registered independents, surveys indicate that voters are more partisan than they were 20 years ago-- less likely to split their votes among candidates of different parties and also less likely to switch party preference from one election to the next. And, while the media characterization of "Republican red" and "Democratic blue" states may be simplistic, there is evidence that within smaller geographic areas, one party or the other is increasingly likely to be the dominant attraction.
Demographers are starting to refer to this phenomenon as "the big sort," in which people move to live among like-minded individuals. It's not that liberals or conservatives ask their real estate agents for printouts of precinct voting data when they're shopping for houses, but they do make lifestyle choices that place them among people who tend to live--and vote--much the way they do.
Political analyst Charles Cook likes to joke that Democratic candidates have trouble carrying any district that doesn't include a Starbucks. Rural areas are strongly Republican, cities are Democratic and the two parties fight their major turf wars in the suburbs, with fast-growing outer suburbs favoring the GOP. Such generalizations have long carried an element of truth, but some experts think the truth grows more compelling with each passing election year.
"Even if you drop below the broad regional level, you find that neighborhoods and communities are looking more homogenous than they ever have before," says James Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland. "You have Republicans settling in around Republicans and Democrats settling around Democrats."
The more that partisan votes cluster together, the less room there is for creating districts that are compact and contiguous and still competitive between the parties. This creates an interesting dilemma. Good-government activists have long considered it desirable to protect communities of interest by keeping geographical jurisdictions or neighborhoods with historic identities together within legislative districts. But the "big sort" means there are more and more areas where the only way to create a competitive district is to lump two conflicting communities together, which is a scenario that creates new problems most sensitive mapmakers want to avoid.
Then there is the question of racial minorities. Under the law, they comprise a community of interest all their own. Federal courts spent much of the 1990s limiting race as a factor that can be allowed to dictate the makeup of political districts, but there are still Voting Rights Act requirements to avoid discriminating against minority interests, including preserving most of the majority-minority districts drawn during the 1990s.
In the most recent round of mapmaking, this caused serious problems for Arizona. That state used a ballot initiative to establish a redistricting commission with a mandate to create competitive districts as part of its charter, but the commission found it difficult to do so once it took into account the need to create districts to favor the state's Hispanic population. "There's a real tension between the Voting Rights Act and drawing competitive districts in a Republican-leaning state," says Michael McDonald of Brookings. "Once you've drawn minority districts, you've really whitewashed the rest of the state."
That doesn't always have to be the case. In New Jersey's most recent round of redistricting, a commission driven by a nonpartisan academic pushed legislative staff not only to create record numbers of Asian and Hispanic districts but to create a higher number of competitive districts as well. The commission kept asking for maps to be tweaked until they contained the highest number of competitive districts possible. One result was a Democratic takeover of the legislature in 2001, but the maps are such that a modest swing in public opinion could allow Republicans to take back the legislature next year.
Given all the complications, is there any way the current wave of gerrymandering could be brought under constitutional control? In theory, yes. Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court left the door open to the possibility that it might find a partisan gerrymander unconstitutional. But the court, in rejecting a challenge to a Pennsylvania gerrymander, said there were as yet no workable standards for identifying such an illegal gerrymander. Barring a greater degree of judicial consensus on this issue, that means that redistricting for strictly political purposes is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.
In response to the Supreme Court's demand for a way of judging excessive partisanship, political scientists are trying to quantify competitiveness, joining with politicians such as former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in pushing for reforms. There's talk of an initiative in Florida to create an Arizona-style commission.
But, as in past decades, the 10-year redistricting calendar is certain to slow any reformer's momentum. "Because we're in the middle of the decade, there's no urgency to it," says Tim Storey, of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "On the heels of redistricting, there's gnashing of teeth and complaints that we have to do something about it, but then the energy dissipates because it's six or eight years until the next round of redistricting."