Each redistricting dataset merges the electoral data the SWDB collected and processed over the preceding decade with the most current census data (PL94-171). The result is a census block level dataset that allows for longitudinal analysis of electoral data over time on the same unit of analysis. Electoral data consist of the Statements of Vote (SOV) and Statements of Registration (SOR) for each statewide election. These data are collected from the Registrars of Voters for each of the 58 California counties with each election.
The SWDB collects the Statement of Vote and the Statement of Registration along with various geography files from each of the 58 counties for every statewide election. The Statement of Vote is a precinct level dataset and precincts in California change frequently between elections. The goal of the SWDB is to make election data available that can be compared over time, on the same unit of analysis – a precinct, a census block or a census tract.
New Yorker, The - January 10, 2013
Author: Steve Coll
Media narratives of the fiscal-cliff negotiations and the upcoming debt-ceiling brinksmanship often seem premised on the idea that the American people have voted for a divided government and are demanding that President Obama and the Republican House split their differences in a responsible bipartisan bargain, grand or otherwise. But what if the voters, properly understood, haven’t actually sent such a message?
Obama won the popular vote by a comfortable margin and secured a second term in the White House. That same day, more Americans voted for Democratic Senate candidates than Republicans; this led to the inauguration, last week, of a Senate led by Democrats. And a million more Americans voted for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives than voted for Republican candidates. Yet the new House has a thirty-three-seat Republican majority.
There is one main reason for the electoral anomaly in the House: gerrymandering. Every ten years, following the decennial census mandated by the United States Constitution, state governments redraw legislative and congressional districts. Republicans have done well at capturing statehouses in recent years, even in states that have gone Democratic in Senate and Presidential votes, such as Virginia. In some of these states, Republicans have redrawn district lines with ruthless self-interest to ensure that voters elect the maximum conceivable number of Republicans to the House.
Organizational theory and common sense would suggest that both major political parties engage in such shenanigans equally, when given the opportunity. That may be so over long periods of time; there is no especially convincing reason to ascribe to the Democratic Party any self-effacing idealism about getting its people elected. And yet, in a series of compelling posts recently, the statistical election-modeller Samuel Wang, of the Princeton Election Consortium, has argued that we are in an “asymmetric” period of Republican manipulation of electoral maps.
According to Wang’s math, twenty-six seats out of the thirty-three-seat Republican advantage in the House can be attributed to gerrymandering in states with legislatures controlled by Republicans. He estimates that, in 2012, the number of American voters disenfranchised by this mapmaking—that is, the number of voters whose ballots were effectively rendered meaningless by various forms of stuffing Republican majorities into safe districts—was in the neighborhood of four million.
Even without gerrymandering, by this estimate, the November vote might have produced a Republican majority in the House. But the margin would have been so narrow that Democrats would have been able to get bills passed if they could hang together and get a handful of defectors from the other side.
Also, because many of them run in super-safe conservative districts, Republican congressional candidates often fear radical-right primary challengers more than the Democrats they will face in the general election. So they vote against taxes and for spending cuts with an adamancy that voters in more competitive districts would not long countenance. This ornery radicalism now threatens to produce shutdowns of the federal government. House Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling, and the Obama Administration will run out of tricks to remain under that ceiling some time around March 1st. This would be a frustrating episode of governance to endure even if it were fully legitimized by a truly democratic election. Yet the House Republicans’ check on Obama’s power is not truly democratic; indeed, it is based on extreme ideas that would be marginalized if not for the creative drawing of districts.
Of course, nobody can unseat the Republicans who have been clever enough—or lucky enough—to win seats through gerrymandering, even if they are serving constituents in districts that, from a bird’s-eye view, look like a figure eight or a stick figure. Gerrymandering is unseemly, even illegitimate, but it is not usually illegal, and court reviews around the country have upheld some crazy-looking district maps.
The question here is not, What if Democrats ruled the world, free from Republican perfidy? No large political party in a money-fuelled, patronage-protecting electoral system such as ours can be best understood as an entirely moral entity, or as inherently righteous. (Within living memory, at least for some of us, the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow and the escalation of indiscriminate aerial bombing in Vietnam.) If the question of voter disenfranchisement that Wang highlights is framed only as the disenfranchisement of our side, then the issue is not really about disenfranchisement in a constitutional or political-theory sense; it is about electoral competition, in which disenfranchisement is just a tactic.
A better form of the question might be, If voters were fully enfranchised, unburdened by gerrymandering, how would legislating and politics be different—or, perhaps, better? As it happens, this is not a theoretical question. There are embryonic experiments in redistricting reform currently underway.
In 2010, California voters approved a ballot initiative that empanelled a somewhat randomly selected commission of ordinary citizens to redraw legislative and congressional districts as their common sense guided them. The result went forward in the 2012 election cycle and it had disruptive consequences. At the time the commission acted, Democrats controlled the California legislature—without this good-government band of citizens redrawing maps, Sacramento Democrats would surely have protected their own. But the citizens’ commission forced two long-serving Democratic congressmen from Southern California, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, to run against one another; Berman, the able chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lost. At the same time, however, Democrats stormed to a super-majority in the California legislature. Citizen-drawn maps had a role in that, too.
The result is that California no longer has divided, gridlocked government, as it has had for the past decade. It has a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, and in the legislature the Democrats are fully in charge. Will they solve the state’s yawning fiscal and educational crises? Possibly—probably—not. Yet, for the first time in years, the Democrats will be fully accountable to voters for California’s governance. If they fail, everyone will know whom to blame.
At the national level, there are reforms bubbling around to ensure greater democratic enfranchisement and accountability. The most important, championed by my colleague Rick Hertzberg, is a movement to ensure that no President is ever again elected without winning the national popular vote. Lashing the electoral college’s outcome to the national-vote total would destroy the distorting concept of “swing states” and enfranchise Republican voters in California alongside Democratic voters in South Dakota.
Another idea—possibly within reach in this Congress—is to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate. That would end the distorting sixty-vote super-majority threshold, which misuse of the filibuster has created. It would increase the power of the current Democratic majority in the Senate but assure that the next Republican majority would be more powerful, too.
Then there is the redistricting itself. If the California citizen-led experiment and a few others like it work over the next few years, reformers who have previously spent their money and time fostering failed third-party Presidential candidacies in a broken system might be drawn to a national campaign to stir a citizens’ revolt against the system itself—to end gerrymandering.
The result would a more partisan, more decisive, and more inclusive system of national government. It would likely be less predictable and less stable, and perhaps even a little dangerous. Absent public-financing reforms, it would probably generate even higher levels of election spending by private interests than 2012’s record levels, because during Presidential elections, every vote in every state would matter. Yet it would be more accountable, more decisive in the punishment of failure and the rewarding of success. And it would be more democratic. Surely, it could not be worse than what we have.
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