Lee Drutman Bemoans the Decline of Competitive Districts

I was glad to see this piece by Lee, which Rick H. flagged earlier.  At the start of this redistricting cycle, I argued that creating more competitive districts was one means, among several, to increase the election prospects of more moderate candidates and mitigate the forces of extremism in our politics.  Lee initially responded by tweeting back the conventional political science wisdom, based on roll call voting patterns, that members from safe and competitive seats do not vote significantly differently when measures are brought to the floor for a vote.  I then wrote a lengthy response, explaining why this conventional wisdom – which focuses only on roll call voting patterns – misses extremely important aspects concerning how Congress functions, and the key differences that do in fact exist between members from safe seats and competitive districts.

I was gratified to see that Lee now recognizes the importance of competitive districts in enabling moderation and a greater willingness to engage in the political compromises usually necessary to enact significant legislation.  Some excerpts from Lee’s piece:

“The representatives holding competitive districts often still pursue cross-party compromise. More moderate members — as defined by DW-Nominate, which quantifies the ideology of every member of Congress based on roll call votes cast in a legislative session — do often hail from more competitive districts, as you can see in the chart below…”

“Governing in America requires compromise. But when over 90 percent of congressional districts lean toward one of the two major parties, that means most representatives have little incentive to compromise. In fact, representatives increasingly face strong pressures to be very partisan, which has made governing very difficult.”

“The presence of competitive districts, meanwhile, is the weak force pulling the parties closer together. These districts encourage incumbents to demonstrate at least some modicum of bipartisanship. But the trends that strengthen partisanship also make competitive districts even rarer, further undermining their potential ability to encourage problem-solving cross-partisanship.”

“This disappearance of cross-partisan compromise has made governing in America challenging. Without the possibility of building broad legislative coalitions, little gets done in Congress on the most urgent issues , and that’s because all the most urgent issues inevitably become high-stakes issues for the next election, where compromise would only muddy the message.

Lee argues there are many other benefits that flow from competitive districts, including increased voter engagement and turnout.  But I’m glad to see Lee concurs that competitive districts are good for the political system and that we both view the decline of competitive districts in this round of redistricting to bode badly for the ability of Congress to forge “problem-solving cross-partisanship.”

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