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'Dude, Where's My Incumbent?'

Danny Hayes

SPA professor Danny Hayes studies how redistricting affects voters. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

Last month the Supreme Court threw out redrawn maps in Texas that favored Democratic candidates, and a plan to redistrict New York State’s congressional districts has been criticized as unfair to minorities.

But AU School of Public Affairs professor Danny Hayes and coauthor Seth McKee of the University of South Florida have demonstrated a much more basic fact politicians and citizens need to know: redistricting is connected to race and voter drop-off in House elections.

The foundation of their research was their earlier study of redistricting and voting in congressional elections in Texas.

They asked a question that hadn’t been asked. Namely, does cutting the ties between incumbents and their constituents make voters less likely to cast ballots in congressional races?

“The vast majority of research has been primarily focused on what are [redistricting’s] consequences for partisan competition — that is, in a state, which party is going to get more seats in Congress? — and electoral outcomes, things like, does redistricting make it more difficult for incumbents to get reelected?” Hayes says.

“But what Seth and I realized four or five years ago was there had been no consideration of whether redistricting affects people’s inclination to actually participate in politics once they get redrawn.”

Redistricting and Roll-Off

Hayes and McKee first submitted their results in a paper they titled  “Dude, Where’s My Incumbent?”

That title may have flunked somebody’s gravitas test, for the paper found its way back to them. But their beefed-up research was later published in the  as the more staid “The Participatory Effects of Redistricting."

The title notwithstanding, Hayes and his coauthor made important discoveries. Following redistricting, participation rates in the 2002–2006 House elections in Texas showed roll-off — voters who vote at the top of the ballot but choose no candidates when they get down to the House race — increased 3 percent to 8 percent where districts were redrawn.

The effects of roll-off in a close election are potentially huge.

Expanding the Study

Hayes and McKee later expanded their research to see how redistricting affects African American voters in redrawn congressional districts in five states. That paper, published recently in AJPS  looks at post-redistricting voting in Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Participation gaps can widen between black and white voters after redistricting, a look at 65,082 precincts across the five states during 11 elections revealed.

But when black voters are drawn into districts with African American representatives, their voting rate in House races actually increases.

Why does this occur? Hayes and his coauthor suggest that when blacks are redrawn into a black incumbent’s district, the representative probably targets them since he or she is likely to win their vote.

“A lot of Americans when they get redrawn into a new congressional district, which happens every 10 years at a minimum, they don’t know who their new incumbent is,” Hayes says. Suddenly their connection with the representative they know is severed.

“So when it comes to Election Day they go to the polls, they look at the ballot, they don’t recognize the new incumbent’s name on the ballot, and they don’t vote.”

Background in Journalism

Before joining SPA in 2010, Hayes was an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University.

He’s also a former journalist who reported for two years at the as well as the at the University of Texas–Austin, where he received an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master’s and PhD in government.

He researches political communication and behavior, and how information from the media and other sources influences citizens’ attitudes.