Political reform in US states: Governors, legislators, and struggles over election redistricting law reform
Permanent link to Research Commons versionhttps://hdl.handle.net/10289/14707
In the United States, the decentralization of power over redistricting to the states has prevented the emergence of a national compromise between the major political parties to mutually reject election manipulation through gerrymandering. A confusing patchwork of redistricting regimes exist across the US, with significant variations between states in their gerrymandering practices and attempted anti-gerrymandering constraints. State legislators and parties typically cling tenaciously to their authority over redistricting in order to protect their own electoral interests, including through gerrymandering when possible. But in a quarter of US states, legislators have agreed to reduce their own redistricting powers in some way, for example, by delegation to a commission or executive officers. This research investigates why. Why has election redistricting law reform been enacted by some US state legislatures and not others, and under what conditions do legislators give up some of their powers over redistricting? The chief original contribution of this thesis is the development of a new index to systematically measure and compare the redistricting systems of US states, as an alternative to simple arbitrary categorizations. System information has been collected inductively through analysis of all state constitutions, laws, and practices relevant to redistricting, and coded for all states to create a ten-point index of redistricting neutrality. This institutional and input-based approach complements the map-focused and output-based approach to gerrymandering detection popular in political science, such as the efficiency gap statistical test of Stephanopoulos and McGhee (2015) that was recently rejected by the US Supreme Court. Hypotheses have been methodically tested against the redistricting neutrality index and the key finding is that the variables normally used to explain inter-state political differences fail to explain variation in the redistricting index. Reform is not exclusive to small states, or rich states, or liberal states, or white states, or rural states, or Democratic states. An additional contribution of the thesis is a small expansion in our knowledge of redistricting system history, through brief case studies that examine political struggles over specific reforms in individual states. The core argument of this research is that two factors most plausibly answer the research questions. First, gubernatorial leadership. Strong support from the governor is a necessary condition for reform in nearly all cases, as a means of herding legislative cats to a common purpose. This is true of most state policy areas and it is true of political reform as well. Second, strategic windows of opportunity are essential for providing leverage for leaders and reformers to persuade legislators to prioritize redistricting reform over their other interests. For example, perceived meddling by courts, ballot initiative threats, and concerns about future election losses can temporarily boost legislator support for reform, if a policy entrepreneur has done the work and is prepared to seize a rare opportunity when it arises. Gerrymandering does not harm individuals directly (as does denial of the right to vote) but rather indirectly through a distortion of democratic representation and the balance of political power, so reform coalitions struggle to mobilize public opinion about redistricting or to sustain issue salience. For states to reform redistricting, they need pro-reform governors and favourable contingent factors to help sway legislators.
The University of Waikato
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