New Political Maps May Kill Swing Districts, But Swing Districts May Not Save Us

The Wall Street Journal is not the first to lament that the 2021 redistricting cycle is not likely to produce very many competitive districts. But how much should we care? The call for competitive elections presumes that electoral accountability emerges from the choice between ideologically distinct political parties during competitive elections–and, as such, that political responsiveness will follow. However, the empirical picture is decidedly mixed on whether this premise is correct. Officials elected in competitive elections do not necessarily cater to the median voter in their roll-call votes.

To be sure, there are studies—even studies generally skeptical about policy responsiveness in the United States like Martin Gilens’—that find some increased responsiveness when there is party competition–and significantly decreased responsiveness while one party dominates. But an emerging literature casts important doubt as to how much swing districts improve political responsiveness. For example, a 2015 study by Anthony Fowler and Andrew B. Hall of competi­tive moderate districts found Democratic and Republican legislators represent identical districts differently. Despite having been elected in competitive districts, these elected officials did not cater to the median voter in their districts in their roll-call votes. Moreover, contrary to what one might expect, elected officials who voted more extremely than their district were not kicked out of office for their policy divergence.

These new studies certainly resonate with me, as a Pennsylvania voter consistently frustrated by the stark difference in Bob Casey and Pat Toomey’s votes and, perhaps more importantly, refusals to take votes. More seriously, all this complexity, as I have argued before, suggests we need to explore new approaches to democratic reform, including ones that accept the dominance of uncompetitive elections among myriad other current electoral pathologies.

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