Reviewed by Gary E. Bugh, Department of Political Science, Texas A&M University-Texarkana. Email: gary.bugh [at] tamut.edu.
Gerrymandering, one of the contemporary problems with legislative reapportionment, is the focus of Jonathan Winburn’s THE REALITIES OF REDISTRICTING. Party manipulation frames Winburn’s discussion of other districting issues, such as population equality, incumbency advantage, and racial discrimination. His evaluation of state redistricting looks beyond electoral outcomes to include rules and party control. Winburn explores multiple incentives and constraints on remappers in order to outline the conditions under which partisan influence on redistricting is most likely. While some of his findings provide few surprises, his lesson that rules help control partisan reapportionment is an important one for understanding and limiting gerrymandering.
Winburn explains that the goal of his work “is to delve into the varying rules and systems across the country to determine if the states already have constraints in place that limit political manipulation” (p.5). He reviews five main factors of a state’s redistricting environment: “control of the process, control of the government, use of traditional districting principles, potential court involvement, and the use of coterminous districts” (p.7). Regarding the first element, he presents a typology of control: unified legislative, divided legislative, partisan commission, and neutral commission. The kind of authority (legislative or commission) and level of partisanship (divided or unified) largely determine which strategy – partisan, incumbent protection, or neutral – that people charged with redistricting will follow. The body of Winburn’s work covers reapportionment processes and consequences in eight different states, two for each of his four process control types. He also details traditional districting principles: compactness, contiguity, preservation of political subunits, preservation of communities of interest, preservation of previous district cores, protection of incumbents, and compliance with the Voting Rights Act (pp.28-31).
As you can see, there is a lot going on in Winburn’s analytical framework – perhaps too much. At times, his discussion of the various types and categories is difficult to follow. Nevertheless, his approach might prove useful in evaluating a state’s redistricting processes. In each of his case studies of the various control types, Winburn alternates between two different states, allowing the reader to make connections with the book’s analytical components. While some of the state narratives may leave the reader wanting more background information, they largely [*1059] follow the framework that Winburn establishes in the first two chapters.
One theme that emerges in the state analyses is that commission redistricting is not necessarily immune from partisan influence. For example, the 2000 gerrymandering in Texas involved commission determination of districts. In order to avoid compromise, the Republican majority delayed legislative redistricting, and the responsibility fell to the Legislative Redistricting Board. The five-member board, which included the lieutenant governor, Speaker of the House, and attorney general, redrew maps that advantaged its party. Several other parts of the book are also informative. One such example is Winburn’s review of the judiciary’s actions in the area of redistricting, in which he elaborates the Supreme Court’s potential, yet hesitancy, to address the gerrymandering problem.
However, academics interested in deeper theoretical concerns or broader research agendas may not appreciate Winburn’s book. Some might be disappointed by the absence of a discussion of the theoretical nuances associated with redistricting. Winburn argues that understanding the reapportionment processes is important because it relates to “popular sovereignty.” If partisanship informs a state’s district lines, he notes, then the people do not have control over choosing their representatives; instead, representatives choose their electorates. This is certainly an important reason why remapping is an issue in representative democracy. Yet, Winburn’s consideration of popular sovereignty leaves aside the contending views of representation that have been used to justify practices and developments in district apportionment. For generations, as Stephen Ansolabehere and James M. Snyder elaborate in their compelling work, THE END OF INEQUALITY (2008), the traditional “federal” or “mixed” view of representation informed redistricting. Population shifts brought about representational inequalities between rural and urban districts. Legislators excused rural dominance because they used localities, not population equality, to determined districts. By adhering to the traditional perspective, state legislatures did not reapportion according to the popular democratic perspective of representation. It was not until after the pivotal decision of BAKER v. CARR (1962) that state legislators began to draw equally-populated districts, reapportioning on the grounds of “one person, one vote.” An analysis of contemporary political institutions or practices could use as its framework the tension between the traditional and the popular approaches to representation, perhaps using either as an evaluative standard. Partisan reapportionment may not only undermine popular sovereignty, for instance, but also democratic representation, more commonly known as political equality. Nevertheless, Winburn’s comments on popular sovereignty do not detract from the purpose of his book, namely to identify existing constraints on party influence in reapportionment.
An aspect of Winburn’s work that might trouble scholars is his measurement of party competition. His source of partisanship data is presidential election opinion polls from 2000. Winburn asserts that “[o]verall, the presidential vote serves as a good indicator of district [*1060] preference and allows for comparability across the states” (p.48). Winburn does not detail the source of his polling data, but it appears to be from national sources. Presidential election polls may indeed offer an indication of party preferences, but unless these surveys are at the state or county level, they are unlikely to capture accurately party identification within districts. Also, in today’s candidate-centered environment, many citizens vote for candidates of different parties. Nevertheless, for Winburn, since “the electorate was nearly evenly split across the country [in the 2000 presidential election] . . . , the presidential vote captures the same underlying partisanship as other down ballot races” (p.48). Winburn cites some sources to support this claim, but they are all conference papers that he has coauthored. Alternatively, some political scientists use party control of state legislatures and governorships in order to determine each state’s level of party competition.
Returning to the goals of his book, Winburn provides some suggestions that are relevant for activists working to remove partisanship from redistricting. He concludes that unified legislative control presents the greatest incentives and fewest constraints on partisan influence, while neutral commissions have the least incentives and most constraints (pp.34, 37). These findings are hardly revelations. However, through some of his state chapters, Winburn elucidates that neutral commissions, a favorite among most redistricting reformers, are susceptible to party manipulation (pp.198-199). He argues that, in addition to adopting independent commission control of the process, states need to cement redistricting rules into their constitutions. Some of these rules include complying with the Voting Rights Act and dividing a subunit only when its population exceeds other districts by 10 percent. In addressing how legislatures presently handle reapportionment, Winburn’s book adds to our knowledge of how rules may be used to restrain gerrymandering.
Ansolabehere, Stephen and James M. Snyder. 2008. THE END OF INEQUALITY: ONE PERSON, ONE VOTE AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
BAKER v. CARR, 369 U.S. 186 (1962).
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Gary Bugh.