Strategic Voting and Legislative Redistricting Reform: District and Statewide Representational Winners and Losers

By Tolbert, Caroline J.; Smith, Daniel A. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Strategic Voting and Legislative Redistricting Reform: District and Statewide Representational Winners and Losers


Tolbert, Caroline J., Smith, Daniel A., Green, John C., Political Research Quarterly


Political elites are generally reluctant to alter the status quo unless a change will benefit them. Scholars have found that institutions, and the rules governing them, tend to evolve in ways that maintain equilibrium, preserving the status of winners. Are voters-when presented the opportunity-more likely than elites to alter political institutions? Using survey data, the authors explore mass support in the American states for changing how legislative districts are drawn. They find evidence that representational losers at statewide and district levels are more likely to vote for reforms to create nonpartisan redistricting in ballot issue contests, while electoral winners oppose reform. They argue that ordinary voters-like elected officials-may exhibit a similar instrumental rationale, using a self-interested calculus when serving as policy makers for a day. Beyond theorizing about conditions under which the mass public might engage in strategic voting, the analysis has implications for practical election reform efforts in the American states.

Keywords: redistricting; representation; strategic voting; ballot initiative; gerrymandering

Most voters don't know anything about redistricting and don't care. They don't see the lines.

Bruce Cain (quoted in Powell 2004)

Institutional change is not easy. Scholars have found that alterations made to political institutions regulating electoral rules are relatively rare occurrences (see Lijphart 1984). One reason that institutional change occurs infrequently is that it is inherently risky for elites (North 1990), especially for those who are (or at least perceive themselves to be) winners under the status quo. Officials in control of electoral rulemaking are generally reluctant to alter the status quo unless a change will clearly benefit them (Bowler, Donovan, and Karp 2006; Rokkan 1970). As a result, scholars have found that institutions tend to evolve in such a way as to maintain equilibrium, thus preserving the status of winners (Riker 1962, 1986).

But is support for institutional cUange at the mass level any more likely? Are voters - when presented with the opportunity - more likely than elites to alter political institutions? Using unique and previously unexamined survey data, we explore mass support for institutional reform. Specifically, we are interested in the level of mass support in American states for changing the way legislative districts are drawn. Does a voter's current status as a representational (or partisan) "winner" or "loser" under a state's redistricting system shape support for redistricting reform? Does election reform fail because voters intentionally avoid it for political reasons? We argue that ordinary voters - like their elected officials - may exhibit a similar instrumental rationale, using a self-interested calculus when they serve as policy makers for a day. We suggest that citizens, despite not being keenly aware of how legislative district lines are drawn, are able to make strategic choices based on whether they are winners or losers under the current gerrymandered system. As with elected officials, we expect losers under a current institutional arrangement to vote in favor of reforms creating new electoral rules that advantage themselves; winners, conversely, are expected to preserve the status quo.

The current debate about partisan versus nonpartisan gerrymandering in the United States hinges on what method might minimize electoral losers at the district versus the statewide (or congressional delegation) level. In a provocative essay, Brunell (2006) argues that partisan gerrymandering may enhance representation by minimizing district-level losers. McDonald (2006a), in contrast, argues that nonpartisan gerrymandering leading to more competitive districts may result in more accurate representation at the statewide (or congressional delegation) level. This research helps to empirically assess popular support for these opposing arguments, finding some support for both. …

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