The reelection rate in the U.S. House of Representatives was 87 percent in 1964. In 2016, it was 97 percent. What happened?
A December 2016 New York Times editorial offered the conventional wisdom that the problem largely the result of "partisan gerrymandering—the drawing of federal or state legislative districts to benefit Republicans or Democrats." The editorial board declared gerrymandering "among the most corrosive practices in modern American democracy. It lets incumbents keep themselves and their party in power even without majority support, it deprives voters of representatives who reflect their wishes and it contributes to the hyperpartisan gridlock in the nation's politics."
The solution? "A permanent fix for partisan gerrymandering would be to take redistricting entirely out of the hands of self-interested lawmakers and give it to independent commissions," the Times' editors argued. Now Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) is introducing a bill that would, among other things, set up such independent commissions to draw congressional districts.
On the face of it, taking the process out of the hands of self-interested politicians might sound like it would reduce incumbent-protection redistricting. But a new working paper by researchers at UCLA and Yale suggests otherwise.
To measure the relative competitiveness of various House redistricting processes in 2010, the researchers first simulated a set of counterfactual district maps based solely on equal population and geographic contiguity. They then aggregated what the margin of victory for Republican and Democratic candidates would have been in the simulated districts, comparing them to the actual electoral results in 2016.
Next they collected a set of 1,473 proposed district maps from 13 states made publically available by state legislatures or redistricting commissions. The researchers compared the margins of victories in those proposed districts with both simulated and actual results.
The median state redistricting plans were less competitive than 99 percent of the simulated alternatives. In fact, 43 percent of the states produced final maps that were less competitive than every single simulated map.
Next, the researchers compared the enacted redistricting maps to the publically proposed maps. Not surprisingly, state legislatures' maps turned out to be safer for incumbents than 77 percent of the simulated alternatives. But the maps produced by independent commissions were only marginally less safe: 75 percent of the simulations were more competitive than most of plans adopted by the commissions.
When they compared the final redistricting maps devised the state legislators with the publically proposed alternative maps, the researchers found that the legislators' efforts were less competitive than 71 percent of the proposed alternatives. But the maps created by nonpartisan redistricting commissions were worse; 76 percent were less competitive than the proposed alternatives.
"In sum, independent commissions do not draw House maps that encourage greater electoral competition any more than partisan legislature do," the researchers conclude. "Overall, our results suggest caution in overhauling state redistricting institutions to increase electoral competition: independent commissions may not be as politically-neutral as theorized."
H.L. Mencken once quipped, "There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong." Independent redistricting commissions appear to be just such a solution.