Given where voter polarization has headed, this is a recipe for disaster. In the January 6th certification of electors, Congresspersons who voted to overthrow the election tended to come from deeply Republican districts. In Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, the 16 votes to overthrow came from districts that were won with 64.9% of the vote, compared with 12 votes to certify from districts that were won with 59.9% of the vote. In lopsided districts, politicians only have to face primary voters.
There is a weird surprise here: gerrymandering may have mitigated the sedition problem in Michigan and Ohio. With a deeply disruptive issue like election certification, districts that were engineered to be close to the 50% win threshold aren’t so safe anymore. In Michigan and Ohio, which are aggressively gerrymandered, incumbents in close districts have to think about whether they’re going to fall below 50%, ending up as what political scientist Bernie Grofman calls a dummymander – a gerrymander that cut things too close. Politicians can tell when they’re close to the edge, and so it’s no surprise that Michigan and Ohio had split GOP caucuses on the certification vote. Redistricting reform will not help this problem. It will change how many GOP representatives are elected – but their districts might be more partisan – which could inadvertently feed extremism.
Instead, a better way to address extremist representatives is a change to voting rules. Reforms like open primaries and ranked-choice voting can make legislators answerable to all voters, not just their core supporters. An important part of the Electoral Innovation Lab is Open Primaries, a partner whose mission is to reform primaries. Here at Princeton, we are interested in understanding where these reforms are likely to work best. Part of the goal is to understand how different reforms may collide. For example, based on what I’ve said, redistricting reform may make voting-rule reform more important as a tool to reduce extremism.
Here’s the bigger point: To truly repair and strengthen democracy, we have to understand that different reforms address different problems. Fair districting fixes one kind of problem (representational harm), and voting rules fix another problem (individual winners aren’t truly representative). Democracy’s a complex system of rules. In the coming years, reformers have to think like engineers or doctors, and know which intervention will work, and where.
We’re exploring other areas of research as well. We aim to do a combination of practical policy work and high-quality research to repair democracy. I hope you will follow and support our work in the years ahead.
Director, Electoral Innovation Lab