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Engstrom and Kernell: Manufactured responsiveness

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Engstrom and Kernell. 2005. Manufactured responsiveness. AJPS.


America's founders sought to divide legislative and executive power by using electoral institutions to give legislators different electoral incentives and constituencies than those faced by the president. If they were successful, we should expect to frequently observe divided government. And indeed we do, at least in the twentieth century. But, strangely, the nineteenth century was a period of frequent unified government. In particular, the House was almost always controlled by the same party that controlled the presidency. Why?


  1. Before the late-nineteenth century ballot reforms (e.g. secret and Australian ballot), party-provided ballots ("consolidated party ballots") made it difficult for voters to split their ticket. (Doing so required them to literally "split" the party-printed ticket). Thus, coattail effects were stronger: Each additional vote for the Republican presidential candidate almost always meant one additional vote for the Republican House candidate.
    • Coattail effects were also stronger in states that held House elections at the same time as presidential elections. Most states shifted toward doing so after the 1860s.
  2. The change from the consolidated party ballot to the secret Australian ballot precipated another change: A shift from "efficient" to "packing" gerrymandering. This led to a decrease in the disproportionality caused by gerrymandering. Although "efficient" (nineteenth-century) gerrymandering would allow the winning party to claim a hugely disproportionate number of the state's House seats, "packing" (twentieth-century) gerrymandering had less disproportionate effects. (See explanation below).
    • See Figure 2 (p 533); the solid line shows the disproportionate effects of "efficient" gerrymandering and compares them to the effects of "packing" gerrymandering.

Sidenote: Efficient vs Packing Gerrymandering

The pre-reform ballot made it easy for local party leaders to know exactly how much support to expect in each area; they knew that anybody supporting their presidential candidate would support their House candidate, and they could observe this in non-secret voting. Thus, it was possible to draw very precise districts. A state party could draw legislative districts that would be sure to ensure that the party would just barely win in almost every district. This is "efficient" gerrymandering.

But the post-reform ballot made it so that state parties had less precise information about where the votes came from. Thus, drawing "efficient" gerrymanders was more risky--it might result in the party barely winning every district, but small mistakes might allow the minority to win several districts. Thus, twentieth-century district drawers switched to a different strategy. Rather than draw a marginal win in every district, they would "pack" all the opposition supporters in as few districts as possible, and spread their own supporters into several comfortable districts. Although this would guarantee the opposition a certain number of districts, it also guaranteed the majority party a large number of non-risky seats. This is the "packing" strategy.


Lo and behold, the authors are correct. Their time-series data bear this out.

Test 1: Ballot type and election day (by district, time-series from 1840-1940)

  • Y: Democratic share of the House vote
  • X1: Democratic share of the presidential vote
  • X2: Interact ballot type (consolidated party ballot, Australian ballot, non-November House election) with X1
  • Finding: With a consolidated party ballot and a joint House-presidential election in November, there is almost a one-to-one relationship between Democratic House vote and Democratic presidential votes in each district.
    • Separate election days drops the coefficient from 0.87 to 0.51.
    • Ballot reform drops it from 0.86 to 0.64.

Test 2: Efficient Gerrymandering

By using ballot-type as a proxy for the "efficiency" of gerrymandering, the authors predict:

  • Y: The vote-to-seat conversion rate. How many seats does a given percentage of the vote translate into?
  • X: Ballot types and district's partisan bias (with interactions)
  • Finding: After reform, the vote-to-seat conversion rate falls. Gerrymandering has a less disproportionate impace.