Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Big Sort

One of the little Janes has a report due right after the holidays so off we went to the library. I came home with State and Local Government 2005-2006, edited by Kevin B. Smith. Since we are all waiting to see if the legislature was able to come up with a property tax reform plan today I've had time to peruse a few chapters. The book is a collection of articles from political science magazines aimed at state and local issues. In "Whatever Happened to Competitive Elections?" by Alan Greenblatt (from Governing, October 2004), there is a discussion the "big sort." If this is a new concept to you, as it was to me, here is a brief description, from pp. 29-30:

As much havoc as gerrymandering has caused in the current election process, some political scientists suggest that there is a less mischievous factor in the general decline of competition: natural demographic realignment. Voters, they say, are clustering together in partisan enclaves that make it difficult even for fair-minded mapmakers to draw many competitive districts.

a little later

And, while the media characterization of "Republican red" and "Democratic blue" states may be simplistic, there is evidence that within smaller geographic areas, one party or the other is increasing likely to be the dominant attraction.

Demographers are starting to refer to this phenomenon aas "the big sort," in which people move to live among like-minded individuals. It's not that liberals or conservatives ask their real estate agents for printouts of precinct voting data when they're shopping for houses, but they do make lifestyle choices that place them among people who tend to live -- and vote -- much the way they do.

Political analyst Charles cook likes to joke that Democratic candidates have trouble carrying any district that doesn't include a Starbucks.

This is an intriguing idea. However, I still favor the idea of trying to draw districts based on established boundaries, such as township or county lines, as well as trying to preserve established neighborhoods, especially in minority areas. It certainly helps various levels of government work in concert. Many of Pennsylvania's congressional districts were redrawn after the last census in strange and bizarre ways. I hope that the state will find some nonpartisan way of redrawing districts after the next census that will not result in say, Montgomery County having half a dozen or more congressional representatives, as it does now.

One bit of fascinating trivia from the Greenblatt article:

Good redistricting software and powerful databases were available during the 1990s -- and partisan gerrymanders certainly took place well before the dawn of the computer age -- but this time around, mapmakers benefited from a technological advance that at first seems trivial: high-quality color printing. The subtly shaded maps that were possible in the latest redistricing round allowed legislative staff to cycle quickly through dozens of permutations until their legislative bosses were perfectly satisfied and the gerrymanders were airtight.

Betcha the color inkjet people had no idea what they were unleashing on the electorate.

Back to the "big sort," though, I wonder if this can be maintained in a highly mobile society. How long can these enclaves be sustained before there is demographic turnover? Then I look at my street. The houses were built around 1950 and there are still a few of the original homeowners around. We moved in during one wave of turnover and there has been another since then. I don't know how most of my neighbors vote but I know that most of them do. No matter what time of the day I go vote I alway see one or two other people from my street. We have white collar and blue collar occupations but most require some training after high school, if not a college degree. Everyone I know is employed, most in jobs with benefits. Most of us with school age children had them in our 30's and are currently concerned with aging parents at the same time. All of the people I've talked to about mortgages are paying them off early or have family-based or arranged home loans and plan on staying in the house for a significant period of time. I'm confident that none of the kids on the street will be getting new cars for their 16th birthday and there won't be any limos coming around on prom night. These factors have to affect how we vote, but I'm not sure it means we all vote for the same party.

If you are interested in reading more about the Big Sort, here are some reputable looking sources:

Florida, Richard, "Creative Class War, Washington Monthly, April, 2004. (here)

Rhodes Cook Newsletter July 2005 (here, pdf file)

Noden, Merrell, "Polarization of American Politics: Myth or Reality," Princeton Dec 3-4 2004 [conference paper] (here, pdf file)

Bishop, Bill, "The Great Divide," American Statesman Sept 18, 2004 (here)


LVDem said...

How do you like Smith's newest edition? I've read 2003-2004 version edited by Beyle and it was good. Let me know. Maybe I can ask Santa for a book this Christmas.

LVDem said...

oh yeah, anything by Richard Florida is a good article. Some people think he's wishy washy and doesn't do a lot to support his arguments (relying on generalities rather than statistical analysis). I like him though. Read "The Rise of the Creative Class" if you get a chance. It's what motivated me to get involved in economic development and urban planning.

AboveAvgJane said...

There were a lot of interesting things in Smith, although I think there might be some more entertaining reads out there for Christmas presents. ;)

Thanks for the recommendation on Florida. Maybe over the holidays I'll have a chance to check into it.