What are the conflicts between representation and redistricting?

Certain segments of Utah’s political class advocate for a rural-urban mix for the new congressional districts. The argument sounds something like the following: “It would be horrible for Utah to not have all Congressional seats invested in both the rural and urban issues that this state faces. We deserve four balanced voices to maximize our voice in DC” (source).

What effect will this strategy have on representation? Is it possible to effectively combine two distinct interests into one district and expect the representative to represent the two effectively?

It depends on what you want from representation. Political scientists often use two concepts of representation: substantive and descriptive. Substantive representation means that the representative takes into consideration the interests of the groups in the district and tries to faithfully represent those interests. Descriptive representation means the representative and the district share important characteristics (e.g. race, gender, religion, occupation). The argument for descriptive representation rests on the types of experiences shared by the representative and the constituents. Constituents are also more likely to identify with a representative who looks like they do. (For an academic discussion of these issues see Mansbridge 1999.)

The question in creating a rural-urban mix is the following: does a combining of rural and urban interests make it more difficult to achieve either “descriptive” or “substantive” forms of representation?

It is not clear how constituents could identify “descriptively” with a candidate seeking to represent a district where the aggregation of all the constituents becomes the “average” Utahn. Candidates are normally from urban or rural areas. They have either adopted urban or rural tastes, passions, dress, and manners. They can have experience with both, but mainly they will have acquired, over the course of time, an urban or rural “style.” (For an academic description of styles, see the classic study by Richard Fenno.) What this means is that constituents from urban areas may not recognize themselves in the rural representative. Conversely, the constituents from rural areas may not identify with the urban representative. A representative, who seeks an amalgamation of styles, runs the risk of being unrecognizable to both urban and rural voters.

Also, how does the representative “substantively” bridge the gap between the opinions of urban and rural constituents? Using opinion data taken from the Utah Colleges Exit Poll, differences do exist between urban and rural interests. In a 1992 exit poll, 65.5% of voters living in urban counties thought air pollution was a serious problem. 48.3% of voters living in rural counties thought the same. Voters from urban counties were also more likely to believe that hazardous waste and water pollution were more serious problems than voters from rural counties, although by smaller margins.

In 2004, the exit poll asked voters to characterize their neighborhood as urban, suburban, or rural. The following tables show that voters who said they lived in rural areas have differences on such issues as the Patriot Act, gun ownership, and abortion.

Views of the Patriot Act, by urban-rural

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Views of the Patriot Act by urban-rural

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Views on abortion by urban-rural

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The argument for a district in which all the different interests add up to an “average” interest may be at odds with Madison’s formulation of interests in Federalist #10. Madison recognized the specific interests that regions, occupations, and industries would have. He believed those specific interests needed to be encouraged and allowed to compete individually in the national policymaking arena. Madison’s argument recognized multiple “communities of interest.” Utah’s approach to redistricting suppresses the multiplicity of interests and encourages its replacement with an “average” interest. Average representation may not necessarily produce better representation since it may result in the dilution of both urban and rural interests. It may also put a representative at a competitive disadvantage when competing with representatives who have more homogeneous districts to represent.

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