Category Archives: electoral participation

Only you can stamp out gerrymandering (UPDATED 7/30/13)

Gerrymandered 4th District

Frustrated by a closed process that results in gerrymandered districts, Michael McDonald (George Mason Univ. turnout expert) and Micah Altman (Harvard) together with thinkers like Norm Ornstein have initiated the quite interesting Public Mapping Project to enable citizens’  input on district boundaries for political seats.

Background:  The WSJ on 7/30/13 reported on the consequences of having legislators draw their own district boundaries (akin to the fox guarding the chicken coop): “Of 435 districts in the Republican-controlled House, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates only 90 as competitive, meaning those seats have a partisan rating that falls within five points of the national average. The rating measures how each district votes relative to how the country as a whole voted in the most recent presidential election. The number of competitive districts [is] at its lowest since Cook first started the partisanship rating in the 1998 election cycle.”

But many states (VA, MI, OH, NY, AZ) and Philadelphia have used this new software developed by Michael McDonald and others to offer redistricting competitions where citizens compete to design the best districts.  The software helps evaluate these maps along various criteria and prizes are awarded for the best maps.  These public maps can become a reference against which the traditionally closed deliberations for redistricting are judged and to refute notions that there were not other better alternatives.  This software can also be used by advocacy groups to weigh in against the redistricting commissions.  In some cases students have designed much better maps than “experts” and is a vivid example of crowdsourcing, how incorporating the wisdom of the general population rather than relying on a small number of experts can lead to much smarter outcomes.

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute thinks that this open-sourcing redistricting is more like a wonk-fest, since in general one has to be somewhat specialized and an avid political junkie to participate effectively.

Of course what makes a good map is itself contentious:  Democrats may care more about helping to craft districts that help minorities get their own candidates elected than Republicans do.  But clearly both parties are interested in trying to maximize the number of districts that are “safe” for their party or “lean” towards their party.  To the extent that redistricting commissions reflect the party in power, or to the extent that the current legislative must approve it,  even with better crowdsourced maps, it will not take the politics out of the process.  And the irony of partisan-leaning districts is that they protect against smaller public opinion movements away from their party,  but by creating fewer completely “safe” districts, it can put many more seats potentially at risk in there is a large storm surge against that party.

See a Brookings Institution discussion on the Congressional Redistricting effort on July 18, 2011 (Michael McDonald appears from about 21:00-31:00 in the talk).

Test out the software here and see other people’s maps.

2010 voter turnout up, but not for youth and blacks (UPDATED)

Flickr photo by Dean Terry

Preliminary evidence suggests that voting turnout among all Americans was up in the November 2010 election.  Compared with the last non-presidential election (2006), both voting turnout experts (Curtis Gans and Michael McDonald) agree that turnout among eligible voters rose 1.1-1.2 percentage points (based on preliminary estimates that will obviously change as all ballots are counted and certified). Regardless of whether one likes the outcome in 2010, it is civic good news that more Americans got involved.

Preliminary evidence suggests electoral turnout rose in at least nine states, and significantly in Texas, Florida and Minnesota.  Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, seems to have experienced a turnout decline.  [Curtis Gans projects voting turnout at 42 percent of registered voters; Michael McDonald believes that 41.5% of voting-eligible Americans turned out to vote.]  Note: McDonald has now lowered his turnout estimate 1.2 percentage points to 40.3% (VEP Highest Office Turnout, as of 11/8/10).

But the bad news is what voices are being heard or not heard. Voting turnout rates were down among young voters (18-29) and blacks made up a lower percentage of voters in 2010 than in 2008 when Obama’s candidacy excited African-Americans to vote.  For example, blacks made up 12% of voters in 2008 and appeared to make up just 10% of voters in 2010 (based on exit polls).  This drop, if it holds up in more authoritative numbers like the Current Population Survey would  negate this encouraging finding reported in 2008 that the black-white voting gap had disappeared.    [Exit polls suggest that Hispanics maintained their share of the electorate, rising from 7% in 2008 to 8% in 2010, although one would have to compare this rise against their expanding voting-eligible numbers to truly understand whether their political voice was diluted, and if so, how much.]  It wasn’t a simple story of the richest folks’ accounting for more of the votes, since those earning $100,000 or more accounted for 26% of the votes in both 2008 and 2010, but due to the elimination of restrictions on corporate campaign contributions in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, the wealthy disproportionately had chances to influence election outcomes even before voters got to their polling places.

[For information on 2008 turnout, click here.]

New: quality social capital data available online

Rating of large cities in Group Participation 2008-2009, CNCS data

The Corporation for National Service (CNCS) several years ago started making volunteering data available online through Volunteering in America , with a research brief, rankings and profiles for all states and big cities, and even downloadable summary data.

The Corporation has now released comparable social capital data.  See: Civic Life in America website.

They have an Issue Brief describing their overall results across 5 dimensions (service which includes volunteering, group participation,  connecting to civic information, social connectedness,  and political action).

One can see the ranking of states or large cities across these dimensions (volunteering, voting, working with neighbors or group participation).

And one can see geographic profiles of states (here’s NY) or communities (here’s the Twin Cities for example).  And summary data can be exported (to a PDF, Excel table, etc.).

These data, in addition to being a great boon to scholars, are highly useful for local leaders.  For example, Governor Schwarzenegger used the California volunteer data to develop new public polices around volunteering, state legislative support for those efforts, and ultimately created the first cabinet-level position on service and volunteering in the state.  Driven by public discussions about the low level of volunteering in New York City, highlighted through CNCS research releases, Mayor Bloomberg launched a new civic initiative for the city including launching a Civic Corps, further buttressed with borough-level data from CNCS.  Many press outlets help spread the word about how cities and states are doing against one another and encourage friendly competition for citizens to become more actively engaged.

Well done and keep up the good work.  With thanks to CNCS for their leadership on this issue.

See earlier post on advances in social capital measurement.

See later post on “US expands social capital measures