In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Redistricting and Electoral Competition in American Politics

  • Introduction
  • Partisan Redistricting and Competition
  • Courts, Competition, and Redistricting
  • Redistricting Commissions and Their Effects
  • Measuring Gerrymandering
  • Redistricting, Representation, and the Voting Rights Act
  • Redistricting and its Impact on Citizens
  • Redistricting and Polarization
  • Redistricting and the Incumbency Advantage
  • The Durability of Redistricting Plans

Political Science Redistricting and Electoral Competition in American Politics
Ryan Williamson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0279


Redistricting, or the process of redrawing congressional district boundaries, can be a highly contentious and political affair. Electoral competition within districts is dependent on both of the major American political parties being evenly balanced. Therefore, redistricting can enhance or diminish competition through how it distributes partisans across districts. Indeed, politicians have used this process to manipulate boundaries in their favor for centuries. In fact, the term most commonly used for exploiting the redistricting process for partisan gain—gerrymandering—was coined in 1812 as Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed legislation creating a map with heavily distorted districts, one of which resembled a salamander. Thus, the portmanteau “gerry-mander” was born. The misshapen districts produced the intended effect of facilitating greater electoral success for members of the governor’s party. Throughout history, Congress, the US Supreme Court, individual states, the American electorate, and an ever-evolving political environment have all impacted the construction of district maps. Additionally, each of these factors further influences the level of electoral competition within the district. Therefore, this work seeks to outline how redistricting can directly or indirectly influence electoral competition within congressional districts. Directly, different redistricting entities (legislatures, commissions, and courts) possess different motivations and constraints when drawing district lines, which can impact competition. Indirectly, redistricting can influence voting behavior and the incumbency advantage, which can also impact competition. This work also explores the tradeoff between representation and competition, the relationship between redistricting and polarization, what constitutes a gerrymander, and how durable redistricting plans are over time. Each can have a substantial impact on electoral competition, which in turn bears consequences for our understanding of the consequences of redistricting.

Partisan Redistricting and Competition

The effects of partisan redistricting on competition are not a settled matter. Conclusions cover the entire spectrum of no effects, positive effects, negative effects. There is, however, agreement that the overall levels of competition within congressional elections has declined in recent decades, as demonstrated by Ferejohn 1977 and Abramowitz, et al. 2006. However, as McDonald 2006 shows, this conclusion is dependent on measurement. In a similar vein, Engstrom 2006 turns to an analysis of 19th-century redistricting plans to gain additional leverage on this question. Conversely, some researchers have found the opposite effect—that partisan redistricting is beneficial to elections, such as Gelman and King 1994 and Yoshinaka and Murphy 2011. These findings suggest that, though counterintuitive, partisan redistricting plans can produce positive effects on election outcomes. Winburn 2008 suggests that the effect is dependent on the rules and constraints placed on the state legislature. Regardless of the effect on competition, Buchler 2005 and Brunell 2008 defend a lack of competitiveness as a potentially positive attribute, contrary to the popular conception of competition as necessary for a healthy democracy. These authors suggest that competition is not the variable of interest when evaluating redistricting plans, but the effects on representation should instead be considered.

  • Abramowitz, Alan I., Brad Alexander, and Matthew Gunning. “Incumbency, Redistricting, and the Decline of Competition in US House Elections.” Journal of Politics 68.1 (2006): 75–88.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2508.2006.00371.x

    These scholars sought to identify the source of declining competition and ultimately contend that this decrease can be attributed to partisan polarization and the incumbency advantage but not to the redistricting process.

  • Brunell, Thomas L. Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for American. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    The author contends that competitiveness has the negative consequence of leaving voters less satisfied with Congress and their Representative.

  • Buchler, Justin. “Competition, Representation, and Redistricting: The Case against Competitive Congressional Districts.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 17.4 (2005): 431–463.

    DOI: 10.1177/0951629805056896

    This author argues that competition does a surprisingly poor job of producing representative election outcomes.

  • Engstrom, Erik J. “Stacking the States, Stacking the House: The Partisan Consequences of Congressional Redistricting in the 19th Century.” American Political Science Review 100.3 (2006): 419–427.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055406062277

    This work finds that parties that enjoyed unified control of the redistricting process produced maps with a strong enough partisan bias to help determine partisan control of the US House.

  • Ferejohn, John A. “On the Decline of Competitiveness of Congressional Elections.” American Political Science Review 71 (1977): 166–176.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055400259364

    This seminal work illustrates the decline of competition in elections as well as highlights similar contributions by others.

  • Gelman, Andrew, and Gary King. “Enhancing Democracy through Legislative Redistricting.” American Political Science Review 88.3 (1994): 541–559.

    DOI: 10.2307/2944794

    These authors produce a seemingly counterintuitive conclusion by arguing that redistricting increases responsiveness from incumbents.

  • McDonald, Michael. “Drawing the Line on District Competition.” PS: Political Science and Politics 39.1 (2006): 91–94.

    This research employs an alternative measure of competitiveness, which leads the author to conclude that partisan redistricting indeed reduces the number of competitive congressional elections, contrary to other works. Available by subscription online

  • Winburn, Jonathan. The Realities of Redistricting: Following the Rules and Limiting Gerrymandering in State Legislative Redistricting. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

    This book dissects different legislative redistricting entities, but its primary contribution is attention to state, as opposed to federal, districting. Winburn finds that redistricting can indeed have significant effects on elections, but state-imposed constraints on gerrymandering can remove some partisanship from the process.

  • Yoshinaka, Antoine, and Chad Murphy. “The Paradox of Redistricting: How Partisan Mapmakers Foster Competition but Disrupt Representation.” Political Research Quarterly 64 (2011): 435–477.

    DOI: 10.1177/1065912909355716

    The authors show that partisan redistricting induces greater instability in elections, which can have positive electoral consequences.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.