A little under a month ago, the Florida Supreme Court decided that the congressional district map of Florida was unconstitutional. As we go into a phase of redrawing the districts, Democrats will blame Republicans of continuing to gerrymander the congressional districts. However, are Republicans really gerrymandering districts, or are they just conforming to a political norm in the United States? That norm would be called partisanship.
One can say that gerrymandering is the cause of divisive politics in the United States, as more gerrymandered district would create more partisan bickering. But is that really the case? I will argue that gerrymandering is simply one of the symptoms of a larger problem, which is partisan loyalty.
In the late 1950s, the groundbreaking study on American voting behavior by a group of University of Michigan political scientists found that partisanship is the primary determinant of vote choice in the United States. The American Voter argues that partisan identity is passed down from family members, as well as through socialization, and that issues and ideology matter less. And while some studies have tried to refute these findings, The American Voter‘s basic principles still hold true. There are some exceptions to the rule, like the Florida panhandle, but overall, once a person is a partisan, they will always be a partisan.
The reason that gerrymandering is successful is partisanship. It is easier for partisan legislative bodies to draw advantageous maps when they know that there will be no shift in partisan loyalty among the American voters. And even if an “independent commission” drew districts, partisanship (or partisan vote choice) is the reason a district can be as non-partisan as possible, as a commission would still use partisan loyalty to create a partisan balance.
Whose fault is this?
Easy…the voters. Because American voters are unwilling to break with their partisan ties, elections are not only becoming predictable, buy gerrymandering is becoming easier. Also, with the polarization of the electorate along partisan lines, this works as a ballast to make seats safer for partisan incumbents.
Is there a way to end gerrymandering? The answer is an easy yes. The way to end gerrymandering is by eliminating partisan loyalties. As I am sure you are rolling your eyes, let me remind you that I said the answer is easy, but I did not say that getting to the answer is even possible.
I’m sure you are saying to yourself that partisan loyalties can never be changed, as I have already discussed what is stated in The American Voter. And I am sure you are saying that there really are no examples of people abandoning one political party, en masse, to support another party in North America in recent election. Well, yes there is…Alberta.
As some of you might know, the left-leaning social democratic New Democratic Party of Alberta won a historic election earlier this year. Their victory led to the defeat of the Progressive Conservatives, who had a 40+ year lock on provincial politics in Alberta. On the national level, center-right and far-right parties have always won the province. Therefore, conservative political parties have performed well in Alberta at all levels. But that changed in 2015.
Let’s look at a few ridings (what Canadians call electoral districts) in the recent Alberta election compared to the last election. First, let’s start with the Peace River riding, the northwestern-most riding in Alberta. The Progressive Conservative Party incumbent Frank Oberle won 55.7% of the total vote in 2012, with his closest rival from the right-wing Wildrose Party receiving only 28.4% of the vote. Peace River could be seen as a gerrymandered district in the United States, especially when an incumbent wins by 27.3%. Fast forward to 2015, Frank Oberle only won 35% of the vote, while the NDP candidate won 38% of the vote. Obviously, if this was a district in the United States that favored the Republicans by nearly 30% in one elections, it would continue to do so in the next election.
To drive this point even further, let’s look at the Edmonton-Whitemud riding. In 2012, the Progressive Conservatives won this riding with 60.6% of the vote, their biggest victory in 2012. The PC’s closest rival, also a Wildrose candidate, received only 17% of the vote. Again, beating your closest rival by 43.7% in the United States would easily be considered a safe seat, and might even be a result gerrymandering. Fast forward to 2015, and the PC only received 32.3% of the vote. The NDP, only winning 8.5% of the vote in 2012, won 57.6% of the vote in 2015. Yes, you read that correctly.
Of course, I can use examples of this throughout Alberta, but these two examples drive the the point home. And what is that point? That gerrymandering is impossible in Alberta. Why is gerrymandering impossible in Alberta? Because voters who voted for the center-right Progressive Conservatives in one election switched to the left-leaning New Democratic Party in the next election. Basically, partisanship doesn’t matter in Canada. And if Alberta is any indication of the future of Canadian politics, ideology is also not a set-in-stone thing either.
Therefore, gerrymandering is a purely an American problem, and the voters continue to encourage gerrymandering (even if doing so unwittingly) by being highly partisan. In the United States, those who identify as Republicans will not vote Democratic, and Democrats will not vote Republican. Yes, some bleeding over might happen, but overall it is just not going to happen. As long as partisanship is the primary determinant of vote choice in the United States, gerrymandering will always happen. The only way to end gerrymandering is to make vote choice unpredictable, as they have done in Alberta (as well as in the Canadian federal election in Quebec in 2011). However, that will not happen in the United States. The voters unwillingness to abandon partisanship is the main reason that gerrymandering does, and will continue, to exist.
So, yes, time to voters to look at themselves in the mirror before pointing fingers at political parties.