By Rachael Sharp
Prior to 1983, Washington was among the large number of states whose state and national electoral districts were drawn by its state legislature. This arrangement changed in 1983, when a constitutional amendment (as enacted in § 43 of the Constitution) made Washington the third state to have an independent commission conduct its redistricting process. Washington’s commission is a five-person panel made up of two Democratic appointees, two Republican appointees, and one nonvoting chairperson chosen by the four appointees.
Per constitutional and statutory provisions, the commission must draw the districts to include equal population, be compact and contiguous, and be separated by natural, artificial, or political boundaries as much as practicable. In keeping with the nature of the commission, it is also prohibited from drawing the districts “purposely to favor or discriminate against any political party or group.” These requirements have not changed significantly since they were first established in 1983.
If conventional wisdom is to be believed, taking the redistricting process out of the legislature’s hands should also have made Washington’s elections more competitive. In fact, § 44.05.090(5) requires the commission to “exercise its powers to provide fair and effective representation and to encourage electoral competition.” However, according to two methods of evaluating electoral competitiveness, margin of victory and incumbent victory rate, this has not been the case. Instead, an analysis of data collected by Ballotpedia seems to show that Washington’s independent commission has had little effect on the competitiveness of its state level district-based elections. While competitiveness is not the only measure of a commission’s success (see Part Two of this post), it may still be useful to consider in light of the commission’s mandate.
Margin of Victory
One method of evaluating electoral competitiveness is by assessing the margin of victory for each race. Under the generally accepted academic definition of competitiveness, an election is seen as competitive if its results are within a ten percentage point margin – results that are 55% to 45% or closer. In an ideal world, the majority of elections would be competitive, as this implies that the electoral districts do not inherently favor one political party over the other.
Under the 1970 and 1980 maps drawn by the Washington legislature (as shown by the green and red dots on the scatterplots below), less than 40% of the state House and Senate seats that were up for election each year were considered competitive using this metric. After the independent commission began drawing the maps for both houses, however, it does not appear any significant change, for better or for worse. While one Senate election (1996) had 40% of its races meet the 10% margin, the majority of elections held under those maps (as indicated by the yellow and blue points in the graphs) have had about as many competitive elections as occurred under the legislature-created maps – between about 15 to 35% of elections per cycle. Furthermore, the apparent trend in the State House under the 1970 and 1980 census maps – under which elections are more competitive during the first year under new maps and slowly become less competitive until a new map is drawn – seems to have been maintained under the 1990 and 2000 census maps rather than having been altered by the influence of a new group drawing the maps.
From this (non-statistical) analysis of the data, it does not appear that the independent commission has had a significant effect in making Washington’s elections more – or less – competitive. This may be due to a variety of other factors that cannot be analyzed using this data, such as residential sorting, but it seems possible that, at least under this measure, this particular independent commission has not been very effective at creating competitive districts. However, this is not the only way to measure an election’s competitiveness, so looking at another measure may shed more light on the subject.
Incumbent Victory Rate
Another method of measuring electoral competitiveness is analyzing the frequency with which incumbents are reelected to their seats. When there is little to no turnover in a chamber across election cycles, it is often seen as an indicator that districts were drawn to favor the incumbents in a way that prevents meaningful competition among candidates, thereby disenfranchising voters. Since this effect only occurs when incumbents run for reelection (as opposed to races in which there is no incumbent or the incumbent has retired), the charts below show the percentage of seats in which incumbents ran for reelection where an incumbent was elected.
At the state level in Washington, both the House and Senate have a history of being very incumbent friendly. In the Senate, only two election cycles between 1972 and 1990 saw incumbents win less than 80% of the races in which they ran, with two years resulting in a 100 % victory rate. In the House, all but one of those years saw incumbents win at least eighty five percent of their races. Since the Commission began drawing the maps, these statistics have not changed significantly. While no House or Senate race had a 100 % incumbent victory rate from 1992 to 2010, the Senate rate did not drop below 80%, and the House rate only dropped below 90% during one election year.
This is not a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of Washington’s redistricting commission, and there are many other ways both to analyze elections’ competitiveness in a more scientific manner, such as Ballotpedia’s Competitiveness Index, and to analyze the effectiveness of the commission. However, this comparison of the results of elections held under two legislature-created maps and two commission-created maps implies that there is no significant trend in the data – as far as the two measures discussed here, it does not seem that much has changed regarding the competitiveness of Washington’s state elections.