The real reason for midterm turmoil: Not enough competitive districts

(CNN) – In recent years, Ohio and Pennsylvania have gone through redistricting litigation, and a court is expected to make a decision soon on whether Wisconsin’s redistricting process was fair.

Each decision highlights a central issue among policy scholars: whether such redistricting contests are actually designed to make congressional races more competitive, or more representative of the demographics of a given state.

Academics around the country agree that incumbents are usually at a disadvantage in congressional races. Such incumbency bias is a normal phenomena, but for this reason, incumbent protection measures can look unfair to voters.

Florida’s Sunshine State is often known for this type of partisan gerrymandering.

“Florida is notorious for that,” said John Sides, who served as a top policy analyst with the Clinton administration before joining George Washington University’s School of Public Affairs.

Florida’s congressional seats are 2.6% slanted to the Republican party, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Concerns are most pronounced about the congressional districts that were drawn in 2002 and 2012, two of the most recent redistricting contests in the state.

The party in power adopted this practice of “muddying” the map to make it harder for the other party to overcome incumbency advantage, political scientists argue.

Thus, the map is “improperly constrained in ways that might make it harder for elected officials to follow the advice of their constituents, to take their will seriously, and to act as if the people who elected them are serious about policy choices,” according to a post by Gregory Costalieri, a political scientist at Columbia University, and Stephen Vladeck, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

In 2010, incumbent advantage in the United States increased by 5.5 percentage points, according to the Political Representation Project. Florida was among the states with a 9.6-point increase in incumbency advantage that year.

While impartial redistricting efforts such as the Fair Districts Florida campaign are underway, a federal panel is expected to rule soon on its request for an injunction to block the state’s 2011 congressional map from being used in future elections.

Academics say that this gerrymandering may have contributed to poor outcomes for underrepresented parties during the last election. The Democratic Party received just 26.8% of the vote in the 2016 presidential race and 13.2% of the popular vote, according to polling by Monmouth University.

Jensen Hall, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, notes that the Democrats failed to win a Senate seat in a state where they took 26.2% of the vote.

A more powerful determinant may be the party’s favorability ratings in the district, which increased as Republicans used gerrymandering. By 2008, the Democratic Union of American Voters had a 13.2% favorability rating, while the Republican Union of American Voters had a 33.8% favorability rating, according to a survey by Jensen Hall and conservative political scientist George Merritt.

“Competition was not a source of competitiveness,” says Grant Whitmore, a former Massachusetts elections commissioner who was national deputy director of the Fair Districts Alliance in 2016.

Political scientists argue that the most effective way to counter gerrymandering is not through lawsuits or other forms of litigation but through ballot initiatives.

“There is no cost,” says Democrat Terrie A. Cohen, an adviser on the Fair Districts Legal Defense Fund. “There is no rush and there is no guarantee in this redistricting process that we will have fair redistricting. We’ve got to get it out there.”

However, claims of partisan gerrymandering may pose a challenge in two key presidential states: Wisconsin and Michigan. Both states received attention for reducing their Senate margins to single digits last year and making it harder for the Democratic Party to overcome incumbent protection.

Specifically, Wisconsin enacted a court-ordered redrawing of its districts in 2012, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The liberal-leaning paper The Guardian writes that Wisconsin’s congressional district drew 95 percent of their lines through unconstitutional methods.

What’s more, a US district court judge upheld the 2012 congressional map as fair to the Republican party, in part because the Democratic Party’s ideals “could not be certain in 2012 and were almost certainly unlikely to be proved in 2016,” according to the court ruling.

“I think this is a pretty common practice with most states,” said Andrew Burris, senior political correspondent at Politico.

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