Carving Voters Out: Redistricting's Influence on Political Information, Turnout, and Voting Behavior

By Winburn, Jonathan; Wagner, Michael W. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Carving Voters Out: Redistricting's Influence on Political Information, Turnout, and Voting Behavior


Winburn, Jonathan, Wagner, Michael W., Political Research Quarterly


This article examines how the splitting of counties into multiple congressional districts affects citizens' abilities to recall House candidates, turnout, roll off their congressional vote, and cast straight-ticket ballots. We demonstrate that while voters living in the "short end of the split" are less likely to recall their House candidates, they do behave similarly at the ballot box to voters drawn into districts containing their natural community of interest. Our results suggest the Supreme Court's traditional focus on population equality across congressional districts might be more appropriately administered in concert with respect for natural communities of interest such as counties.

Keywords: American politics; elections; voting behavior

Why do people vote? What is more, how do legal, institutional, and political measures affect the races that people vote in and the candidates for whom citizens select to represent them on Election Day? Barrels of scholarly ink have been spilled bringing evidence to bear on these central questions of democracy (see Blais 2006 for a review; see Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980 and Downs 1957 for seminal analyses in American politics). The substantial amount of work addressing these issues typically focuses on individual-level factors, like race (Canon 1999) and gender (Timpone 1998), or institutional factors, such as voting registration laws (Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980) and the type of electoral system in question (Downs 1957). More recently, scholars are exploring how one particular factor, constitutionally mandated reapportionment and redistricting, affects these important issues (McDonald 2007; Mann and Cain 2005; Lublin 1997). Still, systematic examinations of redistricting's role in voting tend to focus on (1) electoral outcomes, that is, who wins: incumbents, men, women, or racial/ethnic minorities; and (2) partisan effects: the size of the margin that parties win by after reapportionment.

Too often ignored, in our view, are the potential effects that redistricting has on the voters themselves especially in terms of voter information, turnout, and behavior (for a notable exception, see Niemi, Powell, and Bicknell 1986). While concerns about whether uninformed voters wreak havoc on democracies have long animated political science research from Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee (1954) to Lupia and McCubbins (1998), they just have not focused on redistricting.1 We believe that one way to usefully improve our understanding of factors explaining both who votes and whom people vote for is to synthesize factors influenced by redistricting with issues concerning the acquisition of political information. In this article, we seek to explain how redistricting affects candidate recall, voter turnout, roll-off,2 and split-ticket voting in U.S. House elections. We assert that the most relevant aspect of redistricting that can help us gain purchase on these questions centers on the degree to which a congressional district's boundaries respect what are known in legal circles as natural communities of interest.

In particular, we argue that when the redistricting process carves up natural communities into multiple congressional districts,3 voters in the portion of the natural community of interest that has been redrawn into a different congressional district than the majority of their neighbors are at a distinct informational disadvantage when it comes to learning about their representatives in Congress and, importantly, any challengers to the incumbent's seat. What is more, this potential informational asymmetry may lead these less informed voters to know less about their representative, stay home on Election Day, show up but beg off their congressional vote, or be increasingly likely to rely on partisan heuristics and cast a straight-ticket ballot.

On the one hand, if voters on the short end of the split-so to speak-do vote less, roll off more, or engage in higher levels of straight-ticket voting, some may take comfort in the idea that voters are behaving responsibly, since they are choosing to avoid making a choice when they know very little information about who is on the voters' electoral menu (see Hayes and McKee n.

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Carving Voters Out: Redistricting's Influence on Political Information, Turnout, and Voting Behavior
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