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Experts: State’s safe districts harm democracy


Arizona’s high number of uncompetitive districts doesn’t give voters enough choice on Election Day, which is unlikely to change as districts are redrawn, experts say.

When candidates who win their party’s primary are all but assured winning the general election, it becomes a detriment to democracy, said David Berman, senior research fellow at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Many of Arizona’s Congressional districts are considered safe because the party holding that seat is unlikely to lose it.

These include Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, with Republican incumbent Rep. Jeff Flake running for his sixth term in Congress as well as Arizona’s 4th Congressional District, with Democratic incumbent Rep. Ed Pastor representing the Phoenix area in Congress for over 19 years.

Berman said these safe districts can be harmful to voters and to democracy because voters in those areas can be discouraged from voting.

“If you’re a minority in a district, you can feel sort of hopeless,” Berman said. “In these off-year elections … you might stay home.”

He said politicians can also become complacent in gaining their constituents’ votes when they’re in a safe district.

“Overly safe districts are not good for democracy,” Berman said. “The person who wins the primary of the dominant party doesn’t have to do much to win, which means nobody’s campaigning.”

ASU political science assistant professor Rodolfo Espino said the creation of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was created to keep politics out of the redistricting process, but its success has been questionable.

The five-member panel appointed by the state Legislature redraws Congressional and Legislative districts every 10 years, after census results are tabulated. In many other states, redistricting is controlled by the Legislature, as it was in Arizona before 2000.

Voters approved a proposition in 2000 that created the commission and removed this power from the Legislature.

“Some people point to Arizona as a model, but I don’t think the results bear out that we have more competitive districts,” Espino said.

The commission is meeting in early 2011 to redraw district lines based on this year’s census results.

Safe districts also normally give incumbents a significant advantage in elections, helping them hold onto their seats for long periods of time, Espino said.

“The incumbent advantage is based on name recognition, their ability to create goodwill among constituents, and the money advantage,” Espino said.

But the incumbent advantage is not always considered a negative, he said.

“The advantage is they get to build up political experience,” Espino said. “For complicated issues like military affairs, would you want a representative who is knowledgeable about it, or would you not?”

Berman said constituents voting along party lines also help keep incumbents in office even if they stop representing their district’s interests.

“A person that gets elected in a safe district doesn’t have to work hard to get re-elected; it’s a party vote,” Berman said. “They won’t have to campaign hard or pay much attention to your electorate.”

However, there are those politicians who can be very liberal or very conservative, and still represent their district’s interests, he said.

“In the case of Pastor, he is reflective of his constituents in being fairly liberal,” he said. “He is liberal, but I think he can also afford to be liberal.”

Justice studies senior Grace Quinn, the membership director for ASU’s chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, is getting involved in the upcoming November elections by encouraging people to vote.

She said the group has already encountered residents who plan not to vote.

“We come across that attitude of people saying, ‘Well that person’s going to lose, so why bother?’” Quinn said. “We need to guard against that voter apathy.”

She said working in a safe district can be difficult.

“It’s frustrating and disheartening when there is a very strong incumbent and you don’t have much of a chance of winning,” she said. “But it’s still a chance to get ideas out there and get an incumbent to share their opinion about something that they otherwise may not have had to talk about.”

The money factor also gives incumbents an edge, said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks campaign money.

“Those candidates who are already members of Congress are able to raise incredible amounts of money, which makes it difficult for any challenger to compete with someone like that in a significant way,” Levinthal said.

He said about 90 percent of incumbents win re-election every election year, even in years when there is a shift from one party to another.

“It’s possible that we’ll see somewhat of a change from recent election cycles,” he said, noting the Tea Party movement and voter unrest. “Still, the vast majority of incumbents win, and open seats are where gains are made.”

Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is the incumbent in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, which borders New Mexico and Mexico, and is being challenged by Republican Jesse Kelly. Though Giffords is widely seen as being more vulnerable than other candidates in Arizona, Levinthal said it’s going to be difficult for Kelly to pose a serious threat, considering their campaign dollars.

“Giffords has a significant advantage of cash as of Aug. 4,” he said. Giffords had raised over $1.9 million compared to Kelly’s $79,000.

Even with a conservative push in Arizona, it would be difficult for any challenger to come up against that much cash and win, Levinthal said.

Reach the reporter at ymgonzal@asu.edu


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