Less Turnover than the Supreme Soviet

by Brian Cannon

The United States has a dearth of competitive Congressional elections. Of the 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives, only 36 were competitive this past November. Politicians have brilliantly gerrymandered out almost all competition from their districts to ensure themselves easy re-elections. With only about 8% of our elections considered competitive in 2016, President Reagan’s words in 1988 still ring true:

With a 98% rate of re-election, there’s less turnover in the House [of Representatives] than in the Supreme Soviet, and a seat in Congress is one of the most secure jobs in America.

Many factors work against competitive districts – residential sorting, incumbency advantages in campaign finance laws, and gerrymandering all play a role. The first two, however, have First Amendment protections that make them tricky, if not impossible, to address through systematic reform. The last – gerrymandering – does not have a constitutional protection and there are clear legislative paths to address this problem. Confronting gerrymandering also seems to address this competitiveness problem.

A careful examination of the few competitive districts we have shows a clear take away: States with redistricting reform are producing a much larger share of competitive districts than those without reform. Competitive districts are coming from states like Iowa, California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Washington and even New Jersey. Disproportionately so.

• In 2016, of the 36 competitive seats, 15 came from just seven reform states (41.67%).
• In 2014, of the 46 competitive seats, 21 came from those seven reform states (45.65%).

The reform states make up 30% of the seats in the House of Representatives and have created 44% of our competition. Projecting this out with some back-of-the-envelope math based on 2014 and 2016 numbers, we’d have about 60 total competitive seats for our lower chamber if the remaining 44 states adopted reform. Reform doesn’t ensure competition everywhere, but it helps take the politician’s hand from the scale in potential swing districts.

Fortunately, more states are coming on board. Ohio and New York have instituted reform for the upcoming decade with promise of other states following suit. As Henrico resident Mark Hile said recently in a letter supporting redistricting reform to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “If we want better government, let’s expose it to some competition.”

Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.

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39 responses to “Less Turnover than the Supreme Soviet

  1. Non-partisan redistricting can provide benefits to society. However, I don’t fully trust people to act in a non-partisan way when they sit on these panels. I submit that partisanship is better when it’s clear and visible than when it occurs under the guise of non-partisan action. For example, the League of Women Voters tends to take positions on many issues that are left-leaning. I wouldn’t see a representative of that organization as non-partisan without more. And I’m sure there are right-leaning organizations for which the same statements can be made. I don’t see how does society ensures that sub rosa partisanship does not occur?

    I welcome Mr. Cannon’s comments. And those of others on my question.

  2. I don’t think redistricting should be that tough if people are up front about what the want the outcome to be because after that you just use software to make it happen and you can always tweak the software if it does not yield exactly what you had in mind. The problem is neither side wants to actually seek non-partisan boundaries.. it’s NOT that they can’t – it’s that they don’t want to. Computer software is totally non-partisan..if you program it to be that way to start with. Turn that job over to programmers who have no clue what Virginia politics are – just tell them to program it with regard to demographics… geography , etc..

    But I have big problems with the idea that money in politics is First amendment when the money is essentially laundered and we have no clue who is really funding a candidate. It’s just an extension of what we see with “think tanks” and other political activist groups who are funded anonymously.

    It’s a bad joke of a system and a good number of folks actually like it the way it is… as long as they’re on the winning side.

  3. TooManyTaxes – You raise excellent points. Thank you for engaging. Currently we have a system where the winner takes all (whichever party is in control…in Virginia it was Senate Dems and House Reps for our last gerrymandering). Commissions have merit if transparent, balanced, and carefully crafted to minimize (you can probably never eliminate completely) the shenanigans politicians can play with the system. Though obviously we can do much, much better than our current system.

    See a bill here that Jill Vogel and Janet Howell/Louise Lucas have pushed for a commission: http://onevirginia2021.org/about/independent-commission/

    Also, there are other ways of redistricting reform that fall short of a commission. We could simply add better, tighter rules to our process. Right now they can do almost anything they want for partisan purposes, including drawing out former or potential opponents. You can eliminate or minimize some of those shenanigans by forcing adherence to existing political subdivision boundaries (city, county, town lines) and banning drawing a district with the intent to benefit one party or another.

    Feel free to reach out for further discussion either here or at my email – [email protected]

    • Mr. Cannon – with all due respect – Janet Howell? In the 2011 state senate elections Janet Howell had a problem. A very wealthy (and, therefore, well funded) Republican appeared in her district – Caren Merrick. Fortunately for Mrs Howell, 2011 was the first election after a redistricting. Her good friend Tricky Dick Saslaw, a charter member of Virginia’s Slimy Six, was leading the Democrats effort to gerrymander the state senate districts (the RPV was busy gerrymandering the house districts). Suddenly, Mrs Howell’s district no longer included the pockets of conservatism in Norther Virginia around McLean, Great Falls and parts of Loudoun. Here’s a look at Mrs Howell’s old and new districts -http://www.vpap.org/offices/state-senate-32/redistricting/

      Asking Janet Howell to oppose gerrymandering is like asking Bill Clinton to chaperone your 19 year old daughter on a two day excursion.

      • djrippert – I understand very well the failed strategy and bad politics that happened in the 2011 Dem-controlled Senate. Many say the same about Landes carrying our bills in the House. But if we only worked with those with clean hands, it’d be hard to find enough patrons to introduce a single bill! We’re in the business of converts.

  4. There is more to the high success rate of incumbents than just favorable district lines. They have massive financial advantages and their offices run as full time constituent service/campaign/self-promotion operations. The Congress itself is run on a seniority system that reinforces incumbency. And of course they would not have won in the first place without somebody liking them. The assumption that gerrymandering is the only or even the most important factor bares scrutiny.

    And you cannot discuss partisan gerrymandering without also discussing, and deciding how you feel about, racial gerrymandering – which exists because the Voting Rights Act mandates it. The rules keep changing and may be about to change again, but the assumption is there is racial pattern voting and so in order for minority candidates to succeed, they need to be either a majority in that district or a near majority. Draw districts basically on the lines of localities and geography and communities of interest and you will be accused of packing, stacking and cracking…..

    • “bares” scrutiny. Sheesh….I’m sure there are copy editors in retirement who still laugh about me……

      My preference on this is a strong constitutional provision to require that districts be equal in population, and to the extent practical be compact and contiguous. Contiguous means actually connected, by roads and bridges. You can drive the district without leaving it! The provision should allow that an existing locality is assumed compact and contiguous if included. I’m sure Rippert thinks me one of the bloody-nosed foxes, but I have real problems with any kind of commission. It will be just as political.

      • The issue of racial gerrymandering needs to be discussed. Unwrapping the package, the goal is to create safe Democratic seats. Taking the next step a choice appears – 1) either create a number of safe Republican seats; or 2) set up the GOP for massive failure. Total seats less safe minority seats equals seats to be redistricted. How are the remaining seats to be redistricted? I submit putting a thumb on the scale to create safe Democratic seats requires putting a thumb on the scale for the rest of the process.

        And I’m glad I’m not alone in being concerned that a non-partisan commission won’t just have the appearance of non-partisanship. I served on the citizens advisory committee for redistricting Fairfax County Supervisor seats. It was a large and diverse group, but I sensed more members leaned left.

        Now it didn’t really become a major problem because of Kate Hanley’s leadership. She pushed us to make sure we didn’t recommend plans that put supervisors in the same district or otherwise treated them differently from each other. Also, Hanley pushed us to keep local communities of interest together and to avoid splitting precincts. I’m not sure there would have been relatively equal treatment of the supervisors without Hanley’s guidance. In other words, the GOP would more than likely have been hurt by the non-partisan redistricting, IMO.

        Yet, to DJR’s objection, the districts were pretty safe for incumbents in the 2011 election — all won.

        I think the Fairfax County effort was reasonable and did avoid overt partisanship largely due to Kate Hanley and her efforts to protect incumbents. But if the nonpartisan group had been left to its own, I think that, by the nature of the member, it would have produced three pro-Democratic/anti-Republican plans under the guise of non-partisanship. That’s a fraud and much worse than the open gerrymandering done by the Democratic Senate and GOP House in 2011. Only the Democratic Party and the WaPo would think it was non-partisan fairness.

    • Another huge factor in incumbent success: the absolute destruction of local media.

      There was a time when the local paper or local television station could “make a race of it” by highlighting a race. As late as the early 2000s, I can recall papers and television stations giving good coverage to state legislative races.

      Now? You’re very lucky to have the local paper or TV station run a “profile” piece of each candidate the week before the election. Otherwise, unless there’s a scandal, there is zero media coverage of most state house races. This is an enormous advantage for incumbents.

  5. While I think it’s good to analyze the negative effects of gerrymandering at the federal level I wonder about the efficacy of asking our state legislators to do anything about the issue. The state delegate and senate districts are gerrymandered beyond recognition. This has severe consequences. In the last state senate elections 17 of the 40 seats had only one candidate. They were far past non-competitive in the sense that the incumbent won by a landslide over weak and poorly funded opponent. There was no opponent. The Virginia Constitution clearly directs our legislature to create “compact and contiguous” districts for all elections. This applies to federal and state elections. Our legislators simply ignore our state’s constitution. Asking them for legislative reform against the gerrymandering of federal districts in Virginia seems unlikely to yield results.

    There is a group – OneVirginia2021 – doing God’s work in trying to reverse the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond’s disdain and disrespect for the Virginia Constitution around redistricting. You can find their web site here – http://onevirginia2021.org/ . They have sued the state legislature over the gerrymandering matter. Six of our so-called representatives refused to comply with a court order to turn over their correspondence regarding gerrymandering. They were even held in contempt by the court for failure to comply. They appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court which repealed the decision. It will surprise nobody familiar with Virginia politics that Tricky Dick Saslaw was among the slimy six. Of course, the Virginia Supreme Court is appointed (and re-appointed) by the state legislature for renewable terms.

    Mr. Cannon, I appreciate your analysis of the gerrymandering plague. Your use of statistics instead of just personal opinion is highly commendable. I just wonder if asking the foxes with chicken blood on their snouts to guard the henhouse will work in Virginia.

  6. DJ or anybody, please – how many of the uncontested districts are “minority majority” districts where in all honesty any GOP candidate is simply sacrificial? Not all by any means, but if you are going to throw around that statistic, include that subdivision please….And how many of them had contested primaries? Doesn’t a truly contested primary count as competition? I think Eric Cantor would say it does…..

    This is a good debate to have. But let’s have it with the facts in full.

    • If you’re going to play the “sacrificial” card, isn’t it also fair to ask about districts in SWVA at this point? The last couple of time the D’s tried to put money in a race out there, they got slaughtered. They’re not going to give candidates in SWVA any $ at this point, so what is the point in running?

    • Steve – my mistake, I misunderstood the data. There were 14 unopposed state senate districts in the 2015 election, not 17. However, 10 of those 14 unopposed districts were carried by Republicans. Unless the RPV has made stunning progress with Virginia’s minorities I can’t imagine they are in “majority minority” districts. As for (off year election) primaries – the turnout is so poor that I can’t imagine calling those elections competitive at the state legislature level. Of the 14 unopposed districts, the winner faced a primary in only two cases.

      In a state where the legislature has no effective checks and balances we have absurdly uncompetitive elections for that legislature. Gerrymandering is a big part of the problem but you can add off-year elections, onerous rules to get on the ballot, toothless FOIA laws, no restrictions on campaign contributions and legislative elections of the judiciary with no independent review as further reasons for Virginia’s impersonation of the Supreme Soviet.

      Virginia is broken beyond repair. The state is run by puppet masters pulling the strings on their 140 puppets in Richmond. Neither the puppet masters nor the puppets see any good in competitive elections.

      • This is such a great conversation, guys! We at OneVirginia2021 are working on process repairs in Virginia. You’ve gotta have transparency. You’ve gotta have strong constitutional provisions that minimize the crazy lines politicians can draw, and you have to make it illegal to draw a district with the intent to benefit one party or individual. It’s worked in other states to various degrees. As smart observers here point out – nothing’s perfect – but that doesn’t mean we can’t raise our grade from an F to at least a C+.

        Also, as for the VRA districts protecting Dems, that’s very true. And it’s balanced by safe rural districts. The figures we use for the 2015 General Assembly elections work on opposition by a major party candidate. That gives you 71 unopposed House seats (there are 12 majority minority districts in the House…I’m guessing most fall into that 71) and 20 unopposed Senate seats (I don’t have the VRA district #s for the Senate off the top of my head). But the VRA isn’t the problem – it’s the political jujitsu played by politicians with it. They get to use it for their own advantage by packing black/dem voters into one district at an obscenely high 55% that’s not needed (but makes both Rs and Ds safe) and say “the VRA made me do it” when confronted. It’s a mess, but it’s not the language in the US code that’s the problem so much as it is politicians manipulating it.

        • While admirable, isn’t the real problem “off-off-off” year elections for the Virginia Senate? Yes, lines are a problem. But the Senate elections are held on a year designed to minimize voter turnout. Thus, the only people that ever turn out are partisans on both sides. The truly depressing thing is that it’s mainly older voters. If current patterns hold of Generation X and Millenials voting as they did in 2015, elections for the Virginia Senate in 2035 may see total turnout hit less than 20%. What is the point in having an election if 4/5 of voters don’t vote?

          • Strong point. Lots of subtle tricks are there to minimize turnover. But if it were just residential sorting or off-off-off year elections, they wouldn’t have to carve up neighborhoods and communities the way they do in these districts. They’d draw them normally and let the other factors do their work.

        • I cannot buy a plan that treats minority districts differently vis a vis “gerrymandering” than non-minority districts. Even in this day and age, I can see an argument for ensuring black voters are reasonably grouped together to permit them to elect black representatives. I can also see contrary arguments.

          I see much less justification for allowing racial or ethnic gerrymandering for other groups – e.g., Hispanic, Chinese, Korean. None of those groups were subject to slavery. Blacks are different in American history, albeit how does one address blacks who immigrate to the U.S. ? Further, the social and economic discrimination faced by other ethnic groups in the past, e.g., Irish, Italian, Jews, was generally much more debilitating than that faced by many more recent ethnic immigrant groups. Why was it OK not to treat Italians specially for election purposes, but not Hispanics? I don’t think many lawyers could answer that one.

          But what is clear to me is to the extent we allow racial or ethnic gerrymandering to create majority minority districts, which will generally favor the Democratic Party, it is constitutionally suspect in my mind to prohibit other types of gerrymandering. It’s “heads, I win; tails, you lose” redistricting. Or it’s like giving one football team a 7-0 lead at the opening kickoff. Which, in turn, seems to be an argument against so-called “nonpartisan” commissions.

          • I think history (last thirty years) shows that these majority-minority communities have benefitted Republicans just as much as it’s benefitted Democrats, if not more. Safe seats aren’t good for voters and, ultimately, aren’t good for politicians. They get complacent and lose their ability to raise money/campaign hard. See the argument against Bobby Scott as a potential appointment to a hypothetical VP Kaine’s senate seat.

            And regarding safe minority seats, the courts (visa vis Alabama) are starting to get back to more reasonable districts. The VRA still requires you to not unjustly split up minority communities, but is no longer read to include majority or super majority districts. Good for all involved.

  7. re: ” Draw districts basically on the lines of localities and geography and communities of interest and you will be accused of packing, stacking and cracking…..

    agree.. and in some respects, perhaps most, mandated racial gerrymandering sets the precedent… for motivation to do it – again for other motives.

    I can understand why it was done originally – but I wonder if the cure was worse than the disease but the SCOTUS hands are lock because the law is specific…

    Having said that – I still have concerns about efforts to suppress voting. I’m not talking about voter ID – I support that – both for registration and voting but people should have the ability to vote more freely – more than just on one day… especially for people who commute and or work long hours then have to go pickup kids, etc.

    I think it’s possible to get racial out of politics if we pull back from racial gerrymandering and at the same time make voting easier then it will be up to the candidates to appeal to various constituencies..

    or am open to other reforms but right now – the way we do race in politics has problems.

  8. there’s another aspect to this and that is that the GOP is , in my view, much better at “growing” candidates… they start at the local level and get them elected , build a record and name recognition then step up to the next rung on the ladder.

    Dems OTOH seem not as well focused… and what you see almost as much is de-facto Dems not claiming to be “official”Dems…

  9. on a separate but related issue – Mark Cole and others have submitted legislation to count Federal election votes on a Congressional district level like Nebraska and Maine do, So you’d not have a winner-takes-all for the State but rather winner takes congressional district and there are 2 “at-large” that would go in proportion to how the Congressional districts allocated (I think).

    Any thoughts here on that idea?

  10. It cannot be argued that Connecticut voted for all 12 of the Bill of Rights Amendments including the Congressional apportionment Amendment. Because they voted for that Amendment the amendment is ratified. All it needs to do is be presented to Congress by the archivist of the United States. Once that is done and we have our 28th Amendment. Our congressional districts will revert to 50000 people per district and much fairer less gerrymandered districts.

    • Thank you, FV, for this bit of arcana. And yes, it is true that this first of the original Bill Of Rights was passed by Congress but failed to get a sufficient vote of the States for passage, and is still pending. But it should be noted, due to the growth in the number of States since 1790, it would take 27 more State approvals to pass this amendment.

      And what would it require? The relevant text would increase the number of Representatives to “not less than one Representative for every forty thousand persons [until] the number of Representatives shall amount to two hundred, after which the proportion shall be so regulated by Congress, that there shall not be less than two hundred Representatives, nor more than one Representative for every fifty thousand persons.” Ah! At least 200, and not more than 1 per 50,000 of population — but as many less as suits Congress. That’s exactly where we are today: Congress has set the size of the House at 435 (by a 1911 law) and that would not change even if this amendment were adopted.

  11. The Congressional District boundaries appear to be totally different than the Virginia HD and Senatorial district boundaries.

    I wonder why the house districts don’t correspond to the Congressional districts – i.e. each Congressional district is composed of HD districts or do the numbers just not work?

    • Larry – That’s called nesting and it’d be smart to do so. However, with the odd numbers of representatives we have (11 congress, 40 senate, 100 house) it’d be difficult to pull off. I think we could do it with our General Assembly seats if we’d raise the number of senators to 50.

  12. I was hoping you’d know the “name” to call it. Having worked as an election volunteer – I’ve noticed that precincts are sometimes “split” for Congressional districts but not sure about HD or Va Senate.. which would be a real mess for figuring out which ballots should be given to which voters in terms of where they live.

    And I’m not sure how precincts themselves are allocated.. in terms of boundaries and how many voters per precinct.

    Pretty ignorant about much of it.. but suspect I’m not alone.

  13. another dumb question – when redistricting is done for Congressional districts, is it also done for State HD and Senate districts at the same time?

    • Larry, many of the details can be found at http://redistricting.dls.virginia.gov/2010/ Click Redistricting Plans.

      • interesting stuff – TMT – thanks. Too bad they screwed it up by making the maps so they only work for Microsoft Silverlight…

        and.. even though they tell you the boundaries in minute and exact detail…I’m still looking for the general procedure they use when deciding WHERE to draw a boundary… that would require something like carrier route level data from the post office…or equivalent.

        still looking through it so may find out more.. thanks.

        • It’s about as political and cloaked in secrecy as you get. The districts (state house, state senate, and congress) are all done via a bill and signed into law by the Governor. But the process by which they draw the lines is behind closed doors with whatever they’d like to do. They have federal requirements like the VRA and equal population (Baker v. Carr, et al) and the state constitution (compact, contiguous and equal pop…though they barely adhere to the first two). Otherwise, they can carve up neighborhoods and local precincts however they want. They can even carve out an individual house to remove a potential political opponent.

          • Compact and contiguous is a joke and have effectively been read out of the Virginia Constitution. IMO, the VRA did this. However, I would not propose it wouldn’t have happened anyway given the desire of the political parties for power.

            When I served on the Fairfax County citizens advisory committee for redistricting, we had access to software for map drawing. It provided data on population, population variances per district and some data on racial composition. But it had nothing on politics, except for dots showing the location of the residence of the incumbent supervisors. We could not do the deep dive that both political parties can do through their consultants even if we want to do so.

            Given the ethnic and racial diversity in Fairfax County, all proposed districts were pretty mixed. None were criticized for any problems in this area.

  14. uh oh… look under “about – precincts in the code”

    pretty ugly…

  15. “Supreme Soviet?”

    It was dissolved with the Soviet Union in 1991. Not sure the relevance of the allusion.

    For most of its existence there was only one party – The CPSU. Of course, it’s rigged. Real power was concentrated in the Central Committee of the Party and the Politburo.

    • I think the metaphor Reagan used was meant to say they had more turnover than our congress, which has almost become an appointment for life. I wish the dated reference wasn’t relevant anymore, but given how few competitive elections we have for seats it still is. Sadly.

  16. the really interesting thing – is how anyone knows WHERE the population changes are – and Virginia is totally reliant on the Feds for that info via the Census folks.

    Most of us just think in terms of population when we hear Census but the really important stuff is the geographic data… and how that data can be understood and actually used to re-draw lines.

    The Census folks break them up into what is called Census Blocks – which are just polygons with arbitrarily drawn boundaries and they are not of equal population. Census blocks can vary from zero people to thousands.. so what the census folks provide is maps of areas that in Virginia appear to have some relationship with magisterial districts – here’s one

    http://www2.census.gov/geo/maps/dc10map/GUBlock/st51_va/place/p5174470_spotsylvania_courthouse/DC10BLK_P5174470_001.pdf

    see if you can figure it out.

    the point is that legislators who want to re-draw boundaries are likely incapable of doing that – without some substantial qualified help… people who really know how the census block data works… In other words, the legislators are having someone draw the maps for them per their direction. I assume it’s a group in Legislative Services and they serve whatever party is in charge every 10 years.

    So the Census Dept is a really, really important Federal agency, part of the Commerce Dept that the GOP has said we should get rid of!

    • Usually the software used is called Maptitude. Here’s a good story in The Atlantic about the process: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-league-of/309084/

      • Good article! Maptitude is a general purpose tool used in a lot of applications. It’s the census data it gobbles up and manipulates to spit out “what if” type scenarios … that I still believe is the province of specialists working for legislators.

        Here’s a good description of what Census Blocks are and how they related to redistricting:

        http://www.census.gov/geo/reference/gtc/gtc_bg.html

        In Virginia – they are aligned with magisterial district boundaries mostly – but if those boundaries change – then it screws up the easy data manipulation.

        more about how they are used can be found if one GOOGLES:
        ” Geographic Areas Reference Manual”

        I would not be surprised if the GOP uses the expert in the Atlantic article to get the census block data and fuse it with voter turnout demographic data to figure out how to re-draw…

        And I suspect the Dems are not near as capable in this…

        I also suspect if a given Maptitude expert was asked to draw truly non-partisan districts – he could – and that after he finished – they could be validated with voter turnout data to prove they are truly compact, contiguous and – without any signs of having been “gerrymandered”.

        I think the folks who say they think it would be hard to find truly unbiased folks to do this – really don’t want a unbiased computer-generated map to start with and especially so if it disadvantages their preferred outcome.

        The thing with computers – is that if you give them simple directions they will go do – and spit out. Actually trying to bias computers – is HARD.. takes a LOT MORE time and effort – which is exactly what the GOP is doing with their Maptitude guy.

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