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One person, one vote

There’s a reason for all those Census workers who scattered about the nation earlier this year beyond being fodder for Tea Party activists as symbols of an insidious government plot to plant microchips in citizens’ skulls. Every 10 years, the United States counts noses and, then, armed with its best demographic guess, carves up the country into 435 equal pieces so it can elect members of Congress.

Reapportionment, it’s called. And for all the work it entails, isn’t really all that sexy. Unless you’re a cartographer or a gerrymanderer, it really doesn’t make the old pulse leap all that often. But UNL political scientist Mike Wagner’s work might just change that attitude.

Wagner, who focuses on media and political behavior, recently took a unique look at American voting patterns. Specifically, he zoomed in on counties around the country where map-drawers sliced up naturally formed “communities of interest” for the sake of numerical parity. Then he examined what effects such “carving” of tight-knit communities has on the electorate.

For example, think of the town of Gretna. Situated in Sarpy County, it’s practically an Omaha suburb. It gets Omaha TV stations and radio stations and is dominated circulation-wise by the Omaha World-Herald. Yet, when Gretnans vote for Congress, they don’t vote with the rest of Sarpy County. They choose between 1st District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and whoever is fruitlessly challenging him this year. Now, if Gretnans got Lincoln TV stations and read the Lincoln Journal Star, chances are they’d know a lot more about Fortenberry and would make a more informed decision on Election Day every two years. But since they don’t … well, what happens?

That’s essentially what Wagner set out to find out from a national perspective: How do U.S. voters who happen to be in the “short end of the split” behave at the ballot box? Why do they vote the way they do? What kind of informational disadvantage do they experience on Election Day? What does that do to the strength of our representation in Congress? And what does that mean for democracy?

Turns out, quite a bit. Wagner (along with Jonathan Winburn of the University of Mississippi) found that voters who had been carved into new districts that mainly covered areas outside their home counties knew far less about their new House candidates than voters who weren’t redistricted. In fact, the redistricted voters with low levels of political knowledge were only half as likely than voters in their former home district to even be able to name their congressperson or their congressperson’s challenger in an upcoming election. Redistricted voters with high political knowledge were only two-thirds as likely as voters in their former district to name their representative.

“The fact that people living in this ’short end of the split’ are just as likely to cast a congressional ballot as anyone else, given their informational disadvantage, results in a vote about as random as buying a sealed ‘mystery’ bag of groceries — sure, they picked something, but they don’t know quite what it is until they get home,” Wagner says. “Consequently, there are real questions about the quality of representation these people are likely to receive through no fault of their own.”

A good number of places around the web and also the blogosphere are starting to pick up on the study, with a little nudging from our office. We’ve also put it in front of a number of state-based reporters in areas of the country that are expected to pick up Congressional seats next year thanks to the new Census numbers — places like Texas, Georgia, Florida, Utah, Nevada, Washington, South Carolina and Arizona. A number of reporters have shown interest in seeing the full study and expect to write something — if not soon, then as redistricting becomes more imminent.

Regardless, the work was a good reminder of the power of media markets and geography on elections, and will only grow more relevant as Wagner digs deeper into his results. We’re looking forward to it.

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