Jul 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

First look: Battleground imbalance

Data: Ohio State University election law program via The Cook Political Report; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Some of the most competitive battleground states have some of the least competitive House districts, according to a new data analysis first seen by Axios.

Why it matters: Big gaps between the voting margins in districts and states overall demand explanation, researchers say, since they could be a sign of gerrymandering. An alternative is they're a reflection of Americans increasingly living near like-minded people — a potential boost to candidates on the political extremes.

  • "If a lack of competitiveness is caused by gerrymandering, that's really bad for voters and for democracy, and we'd like to squeeze that out of the system," Ned Foley, an Ohio State University redistricting and election expert, told Axios.
  • Foley is leading the project to analyze the trends.

The data: Researchers at Ohio State looked at the 2020 Biden-Trump election margin for every U.S. House district using data from the Cook Political Report. Then they computed an average for each state.

  • Next, they compared the average to the Biden-Trump margin for the state overall.
  • They viewed that as a way to measure whether states have disproportionately uncompetitive districts.

By the numbers: The battleground states of Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin had the biggest discrepancy between the competitiveness of the state overall and their average district.

  • This gap existed despite major court decisions forcing new, fairer maps to be drawn in Pennsylvania and North Carolina after the last redistricting cycle in 2010.
  • The gaps largely benefit and protect Republicans in those states, Foley said, although the trend in Arizona — which came in fifth for the largest competitiveness gap — likely favors Democrats.
  • All but Pennsylvania have more Republican members in the House than Democrats. And even in Georgia, where Republicans have only two extra House seats, GOP districts are far less competitive than Democratic ones.

What to watch: Gerrymandering concerns aside, increasingly uncompetitive House districts allow more partisan candidates to thrive.

  • Biden won Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D-N.Y.) district by 16 points more than his average margin throughout New York state — underscoring how decidedly blue the population is that elected one of the most progressive members of the House.
  • Trump’s margin over Biden in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's (R-Ga.) district was almost 50 points in a state that was almost even between Trump and Biden.
  • The average margin in Georgia districts was already large at 30.5%, but Greene's district was even less competitive.

Yes, but: Not all uncompetitive districts in competitive states are unfair.

  • Following the Voting Rights Act to ensure fair representation can result in compact, uncompetitive districts.

Between the lines: The data is just a first installment of a larger project by Ohio State University's election law program focused on election competitiveness and gerrymandering. It was timed ahead of the redistricting cycle, which will kick off with the release of additional census data in August.

  • Foley thinks there could be more action from Congress to prevent gerrymandering using data like his.
  • Congress could pass laws requiring states with big competitive gaps to go through pre-clearance and explain the discrepancy to the Justice Department or else make a new map, he told Axios.
  • Or, they could create an avenue for litigation over maps with competitive gaps, so states would have to defend it in court.
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