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Expert alert: Congressional reapportionment and voter behavior

The first major wave of Census data came pouring out today, showing that (as of April 1) the United States had 308 million people, a fairly slow growth rate of 9.7 percent since 2000, and population shifts from the Rust Belt and Northeast to the West and South. In the political realm, this population shift meant reapportionment for the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Texas picked up four new House seats and Florida two, while Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Nevada, Washington and Utah gained one each. Big Ten states like Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania lost a seat, along with New York, New Jersey, Missouri and Massachusetts.

Lots of stories so far about who wins and who loses in the new alignment. Conventional wisdom says the electoral table gets tipped a bit towards the GOP, but Democrats also claimed reasons to be optimistic. There’s plenty of spin to go around.

Meanwhile, enterprising reporters who are interested in how redistricting affects voters will want to see this research co-authored by University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist Michael Wagner. The study, which appears in this month’s edition of Political Research Quarterly, finds that when “communities of interest” are carved up in the wake of squeezing in a new congressional district, many voters struggle at the ballot box.

Think of it this way: Say you’re from Gretna, just a few miles from Omaha. You watch Omaha TV stations and get the Omaha World-Herald. You shop in Omaha, go to restaurants in Omaha and have a good number of friends in Omaha. You see the 2nd District’s representative, Lee Terry, on TV and in the newspapers regularly. But you’re actually in the 1st District, which is oriented mostly toward Lincoln on up into northeast Nebraska — meaning your congressman is Jeff Fortenberry, who you hear nothing about. What do you do when it comes time to vote in congressional elections? Do you vote along party lines? Do you “roll off” — leave blank — your congressional ballot? Wagner’s research looks at this voting behavior from a national perspective over several years both before and after the redistricting following the 2000 Census, and finds that many voters — particularly those who have been “carved out” of their original congressional district — don’t know who or what they’re voting for when it comes to their congressional ballots. This kind of stuff happens every 10 years around the country, and its effects can be far-reaching.

“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.”

The study suggests that political mapmakers should work harder to keep natural communities intact — not splitting up counties, for example, or if so, splitting them more equally so local media cover both fairly equally, thereby informing the electorate more effectively.

Mike Wagner, assistant professor of political science at UNL, is at, 402.472.2539 or

Updated to add: Ed Hornick of has included Wagner’s work in his main story about the political ramifications of the 2010 Census figures. Check it out here.

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