The manipulation of legislative districts for political advantage in the United States is older than the United States itself. In 1788, the year before the Constitution was ratified, Patrick Henry convinced the Virginia legislature to alter James Madison’s congressional district to favor James Monroe.(1) Madison won anyway. More than 20 years later, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry infamously approved state senate districts drawn to ensure Democratic-Republican control of the Bay State and, as a result, gave us the term gerrymandering.(2)
These historical giants left the political stage long ago, but gerrymandering lives.
Gerrymandering skews democracy in many different ways. This report focuses on one particular effect: diminished voter choice. The most effective gerrymanders slice and dice communities with surgical precision to make the outcomes of district-wide elections as predictable and favorable as possible to the party in power.
In many cases, outcomes are so effectively preordained that competition disappears and voters only see one major party on the ballot in November. In the most egregious cases, incumbent protection gerrymanders result in districts in which even major party primaries are uncontested. As a result, the election is over when the filing deadline passes and before a single vote is cast.
This report examines the 2016 primary and general elections for Congress and state legislatures. It concludes that voters in a shocking number of campaigns have been left without choices at the polls this year. In states where legislators drew maps, voters have fewer choices than in states where maps were drawn by individuals with no personal stake in the outcome. And when voters have real choices on Election Day, our democracy is strengthened because citizens can hold elected officials accountable.
Voter choice is essential to a healthy democracy. When only one person is on the ballot, there are no “choices.” And when there are no choices, democracy enters a death spiral. Turnout drops as citizens give up on voting and ultimately on self-government.
This report examines how the ways states draw congressional and state legislative districts influences voter choice. We find that when state legislators draw the lines, the majority party often engages in gerrymandering, manipulating the boundaries to benefit its candidates and stifle opposition. In hundreds of districts across America, that means voters will find only one name on the ballot next month when they choose who will represent them in Congress or in their state legislature.
When nonpartisan citizen redistricting commissions draw state and congressional districts, there is a much greater chance that at least two candidates – one from each major party – will be on the general election ballot. Our analysis also shows that commissions give voters more choices in primary elections by producing fewer districts in which only one person from a major party files to run. The competition pushes candidates to work harder to connect with voters, boosting turnout and strengthening democracy.
Measuring Gerrymandering's Impact
Gerrymandering’s effects on our democracy are varied and far-reaching. Some gerrymanders pack communities of color into a few districts to limit their influence over other districts and deny them an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Other gerrymanders divide these communities among districts to limit their influence in any one district. Communities of interest - bonded by geography, culture, language, occupation, transportation, or other attributes - may be arbitrarily divided for political advantage and without regard to their need for fair representation.
In states such as Maryland, where Democrats drew the district lines, and North Carolina, where Republicans drew the lines, voters of one party have been targeted to limit their political influence in a constitutionally questionable manipulation of boundaries. Partisan outcomes may be distorted when one party wins more seats statewide than its vote totals justify. Gridlock may result because legislators representing districts drawn to be safe for them and their party have little incentive to compromise across party lines.
This report focuses on a different consequence of gerrymandering: fewer voter choices. The research examines whether citizens have more choices at the ballot box when citizen redistricting commissions rather than legislators draw state legislative and congressional maps. We did this by computing the percentage of districts in each state that were so skewed toward one candidate or one party that other major party candidates did not bother to run. We examined the general election choices voters will have in November by determining the percentage of congressional and state legislative districts in which one or more candidates of only one major party filed to run.
There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which one-party dominance of legislative districts is a function of gerrymandering or of the migration of Americans to communities of politically like-minded people. For example, Democratic voters are often concentrated in large cities or college towns while a larger proportion of Republican voters live in suburban, exurban, and rural communities.
We can't let our legislators draw their own districts
To ensure that a lack of political competition does not simply reflect self-sorting by voters or a statewide partisan imbalance, we also examined whether voters had choices in this year’s primaries; we did that by determining the percentage of districts in which only one person sought a major party nomination and then was unopposed in the general election. In addition, our research spotlights states with an unusually high percentage of uncontested elections.
Several factors unrelated to redistricting may also figure in voter choice. A full-time legislature in which members are well-paid may encourage more incumbents to run for reelection, making it more difficult for newcomers to break through. Term limits and campaign finance rules may also affect turnover and incumbency. Nonetheless, the relationship we found in this year’s elections between the power of legislators to draw districts and the number of challengers in those districts suggests that who controls district lines remains an important factor in determining how many candidates voters will see on the ballot.
Voter choice is essential to a healthy democracy. When only one person is on the ballot, citizens essentially have no way to hold that individual accountable. And with no choices available, turnout drops as citizens see little point in voting. In 2014, the first midterm election after the 2010 redistricting cycle and thus the first without a presidential campaign to drive up turnout, voter participation was the lowest for any congressional election since 1942 -- when hundreds of thousands of Americans were at war overseas.(4) When election outcomes are predetermined, winning candidates have little incentive to court or even stay in touch with voters. This is unsustainable if we hope to maintain a vibrant democracy.
Measuring Voter Choice
To determine the extent of voter choices in different states, Common Cause compiled lists of all individuals who filed to run in congressional and state legislative races in the 2016 elections.
For primaries and other nominating contests, we calculated the percentage of districts in which only one person from one major party filed to run. This effectively hands a victory to the lone filer before a single vote is cast; the one major party candidate faces no competition in the primary and in most cases either no opponent or only a minor party or independent candidate in the general election. This lack of choice is the consequence of gerrymanders designed to protect one individual, often the incumbent legislator.
Lack of Voter Choices
Lack of Voter Choices
Measuring a lack of voter choices in a district’s:
We examined voter choice in the general election by computing the percentage of districts in which one or more candidates from only one major party filed to run. In this scenario, voters in one of the major party primaries may have had choices on that ballot, but the larger, general election electorate will not. In most such cases, general election voters will see only one major party candidate on the Nov. 8 ballot; occasionally, in top-two primary states, there will be two candidates of the same party on the ballot.(5) In either case, the party which will control that district after Election Day already has been determined. This lack of choice results from partisan gerrymanders in which the party in control of redistricting maximizes the number of districts in which its candidate is certain to win.
This is not what a ballot should look like.
Our decision to measure voter choice only in terms of major party options is not a value judgment about third parties or their candidates. It merely reflects the fact that our electoral system has made serious third-party competition for seats in Congress or the state legislature very unusual. As a result, gerrymandering is specifically designed to advantage or disadvantage candidates who are either Democrats or Republicans. Measuring the extent to which those efforts succeed provides important insight into voter choice.
Who Draws the Districts?
Our research also sought to determine what impact -- if any -- the way districts are drawn has on the number of voter choices at the polls. In most of the country, state legislators have the sole authority to draw congressional and state legislative maps.(6) They are guided by few rules, aside from a requirement that the population be equally divided among districts, and they generally draw maps in private using sophisticated technology, with little input from the public or scrutiny by the media. The system makes it easy for legislators to ignore the inherent conflict between their personal interest in holding seats and/or maintaining and strengthening a partisan advantage and the public’s interest in political competition and responsive government.
State Redistricting Models
Interactive: Who Draws Districts in Each State?
Click each state to learn more about how that state draws districts.
Several states have implemented alternative rules for drawing districts to reduce the ability of mapmakers to put political concerns ahead of fair representation.
Some states have created citizen commissions to recommend district lines while giving legislators ultimate authority to draw maps. In Florida, voters amended the state constitution by ballot initiative to explicitly bar legislators from drawing districts designed to help or hurt a party or candidate.(7)
In several other states, politician commissions draw districts. Some of those commissions include a subgroup of legislators with equal partisan balance or other protections against one-party dominance; others are composed of statewide elected officials working on their own or in conjunction with legislators.
This report focuses mostly on a different reform, one that effectively prevents political interests from dominating the redistricting process: citizen redistricting commissions.
Citizen redistricting commissions give the power to the people.
In citizen commission states, elected offices are stripped of the power to draw districts and replaced by an impartial group of citizens.
Citizen redistricting commissions give the power to the people. Citizen commissions operate with conflict of interest protections that bar legislators and candidates and their families, party officials, and others with a direct stake in the outcome, from the mapmaking process. Commissions also typically protect against one-party dominance by requiring that membership be divided equally between Republicans and Democrats.(8) State laws provide neutral guidelines for drawing districts while increasing transparency by requiring commission members to hear testimony and deliberate in public.
In the most independent of the citizen commission models, such as those in California and Arizona, legislators play a minimal role in selecting commission members.
In California, legislators may strike a limited number of individuals from a pool of prospective commissioners that have been screened for conflicts of interest by the state auditor’s office. The first group of commissioners is then selected randomly and that group selects the remaining members to ensure diversity.(9) In Arizona, legislators appoint commissioners but must choose from a pool screened for conflicts by the nonpartisan Commission on Appellate Court Appointments.(10)
In other citizen commission states, legislators appoint commissioners without being limited to a prescreened pool, but are prohibited from appointing certain categories of individuals with a stake in the outcome. Although our research shows there are far too many states in which voters’ choices are limited at the ballot box, it also demonstrates that removing politicians’ power to draw districts is an important step to effect change.
Citizen Redistricting Commissions Give Voters More Choices
When citizen redistricting commissions draw districts, voters have more options on their primary and general election ballots than when legislators hold the pen.
In 28 congressional districts -- 11 percent of the 250 drawn by legislators -- the 2016 campaign essentially ended before the primary because only one person sought the nomination of one major party and no opposition emerged in the other major party. There was a similar absence of intraparty competition in just two of the 74 districts -- 3 percent -- drawn by independent commissions.
A similar pattern will prevail in this year’s congressional general elections. In 47 of the 250 congressional districts legislators drew -- 19 percent -- there were one or more candidates for one major party nomination but the other party had no candidate. That scenario occurred in just six of the 74 districts -- 8 percent -- drawn by commissions.
When Legislators Redistrict
Legislators are almost four times more likely than citizen redistricting commissions to produce
congressional districts that deny voters choices in a primary and more than twice as likely to produce districts that deny voters choices in the general election.
Legislators are almost four times more likely than citizen redistricting commissions to produce congressional districts that deny voters choices in a primary and more than twice as likely to produce districts that deny voters choices in the general election.
At the state level, the districts state legislators draw for their own elections also limit voters’ primary election choices relative to commission-drawn districts. In 1,114 legislative districts, nearly one-third of the 3,506 drawn by legislators nationwide, only one person from a major party filed to run. Except in the rare situation in which state law allows parties to appoint general election candidates and they choose to do so, those individuals will be unopposed by the other party next month. Only 112 of 554 districts drawn by citizen commissions were similarly uncompetitive; that’s 21 percent of all citizen commission-drawn districts.
States where legislators draw maps will also have a higher percentage of districts with limited general election choices compared to independent commission states because candidates from only one major party filed to run: 43 percent to 29 percent.
The Candidate Problem
Candidates from only one major party filed to run in 43% of state legislative districts drawn by state legislators.
There appears to be little difference in voter choice between states in which legislators draw districts and those which give the job to a commission of politicians from both parties. In all cases, voters living in states in which districts are drawn by citizen redistricting commissions have more choices at the ballot box.
In 35 percent of the districts drawn by politician commissions, primary competition was nonexistent because only one person from a major party filed to run. And in 44 percent of politician commission-drawn districts, there will be no general election competition.
Which States Provide the Fewest Choices?
Some states in which elected officials draw state legislative districts provide voters with an extraordinary lack of choice at the ballot box.
In eight states, the composition of the next legislature already has largely been decided because candidates from only one major party filed to run in 60 percent or more of state legislative districts. These include Georgia (81 percent), Massachusetts (79 percent), South Carolina (76 percent), Arkansas (75 percent), Rhode Island (70 percent), Illinois (67 percent), Texas (66 percent), and New Mexico (62 percent). Citizen redistricting commissions did not draw maps in any of these states. The highest percentage of uncontested seats in the five independent commission states is 44 percent in Idaho.
The People’s No Choice Awards go to: Arkansas, Georgia and Massachusetts
In seven states, campaigns were effectively over even before the primary because only one major party candidate filed to run in a majority of state legislative districts. These include Massachusetts (68 percent), Arkansas (65 percent), Georgia (56 percent), Illinois (55 percent), South Carolina (55 percent), Rhode Island (54 percent), and Delaware (50 percent). Again, the worst-performing citizen redistricting commission, in Washington State, fared significantly better on this measure at 32 percent.
Although the lure of a seat in Congress creates fewer uncontested races, some states stand out. In Arkansas, only one Republican and no Democrats filed in three of the state’s four districts (75 percent), leaving only one district with a contested primary and one with a contested general election. In Massachusetts, five of nine general election races will feature one Democrat and no Republicans (56 percent). Citizen redistricting commissions did not draw the congressional maps in either state. The worst-performing of the citizen commission states in this category, Arizona, will have two-party contests in seven of its nine congressional districts.
There are many ways to measure the health of our democracy. The number of choices at the ballot box in primary and general elections is one important gauge because it demonstrates the extent to which candidates must reach out to voters and whether voters can hold them accountable. Our research demonstrates that citizens in many states see only one major party candidate on the ballot. While many factors may play a role in this lack of choice, the record of citizen redistricting commissions in producing more choices is a significant argument in their favor.
Barasch, Emily. “The Twisted History of Gerrymandering in American Politics.” The Atlantic 19 Sep. 2012.
Klein, Christopher. “A New Species of Monster.” Boston Globe 11 Sep. 2011.
This estimate represents 47 districts times 710,767, the average population of a congressional district. See Burnett, Kristen B., Congressional Apportionment: 2010 Census Briefs at 1, United States Census Bureau, Nov. 2011.
DelReal, Jose A. “Voter Turnout in 2014 Was the Lowest Since WWII.” The Washington Post 10 Nov. 2014.
It is worth noting that some states allow political parties to appoint candidates if none le to run. This may provide voters with an alternative choice in a handful of instances and is not captured in our statistics because we count only candidates who led to run prior to the ling deadline. However, we choose not to credit states for the rare situation in which state law allows an appointment and the party exercises that option because the appointed candidate does not re ect the choice of any primary voters and because candidate lings more accurately portray the extent to which a district is considered su ciently competitive to contest.
Common Cause, “Who draws your congressional and state legislative districts,” available at www.commoncause.org/ redistricting.
Fla. Const. art. III, §§ 20-21.
Alaska has a citizen redistricting commission that excludes public o cials and employees from its membership. We do not classify Alaska’s redistricting body as a citizen redistricting commission for the purposes of this report because it allows leaders of only one party to appoint all of the members, which took place during the 2010 redistricting cycle. See Levitt, Justin, All About Redistricting: Alaska, available at http://redistricting.lls.edu/states-AK.php.
Cal. Gov. Code § 8252.
Ariz. Const. art. IV, pt. 2, § 1.
The Common Cause Education Fund is the research and public education affiliate of Common Cause, founded by John Gardner in 1970, and one of the country’s most effective advocates working to reduce the influence of special-interest money in politics, empower voters to make their voices heard, ensure transparency in government, and protect the free flow of information. We work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process.
Dan Vicuna is Common Cause’s national redistricting manager.
Keshia Morris is a program associate at Common Cause.
Dale Eisman is Common Cause’s senior writer/editor.
This report was prepared with the generous support of the Democracy Fund, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Wallace Global Fund.
Research assistance was provided by Common Cause interns Nisha Behrman, Noah Grolnick, Allison Gordon, Hannah Schwartz, Shiran Zecharya, Dana Sutton, Seung Won Lee, and Dana Patterson.
The authors also extend our appreciation to the staff at Ballotpedia, whose research was invaluable for confirming our data and obtaining information when state records were incomplete.