Non-Competitive Elections Threaten Democracy

Originally posted: November 4, 2005

American democracy faces a crisis–the crisis of non-competitive elections. More and more, American elections consist of incumbents cruising to victory.

In 2004, 98 percent of US House incumbents kept their seats. Only 5 incumbents lost to challengers–the second-lowest number in our history. Eighty-three percent of the 435 House races were won by landslides. Nearly 90 percent of incumbents were reelected by margins of at least 20 percent. In 14 states, every race was won by a landslide margin of at least 20 percent. Only four states recorded no landslide victories.

State legislative races were even less competitive. Nationwide, 40 percent of the more than 7,000 races were uncontested.

Indiana is not immune from non-competitive races. In 2004, five of Indiana’s nine Congressional races (56 percent) were determined by margins of 20 percent or more. Incumbents won all 32 US House races in Indiana between 1992 and 2002. In 2004, Republican Michael Sodrel was one of only 5 challengers nationwide to defeat an incumbent Congressman (Baron Hill).

America’s lack of competitive elections has several consequences. One is voter apathy. In 2004, nearly 1 out of 11 voters skipped their House race on the ballot, knowing that the outcome was a forgone conclusion.

A second consequence is partisan polarization within Congress. Former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton notes that “non-competitive elections have helped fuel the incredible partisanship in Congress. When candidates can win simply by appealing to voters in their own party, there is little incentive to moderate their positions or their rhetoric, to reach toward the center or approach issues in a bipartisan manner.”

One of the prime causes of non-competitive elections is partisan redistricting. Gerrymandering is a blatantly political exercise in which the dominant party manipulates the lines so as to guarantee its continued supremacy. Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, in Vieth v. Julier (2004), wrote that lawmakers increasingly use advanced computer programs and demographic data to devise “safe but slim victory margins in the maximum number of districts, with little risk of cutting their margins too thin.”

Battles over redistricting are often very ugly. In 2003, Republicans in the Texas state legislature redrew district lines for the second time after the 2000 census. Democratic lawmakers staged a walkout, fleeing to Oklahoma and New Mexico. Democrats are now discussing similar mid-census redistricting in states they control, including Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

One solution to the redistricting wars and non-competitive elections is to have district lines drawn by independent, non-partisan commissions guided by criteria such as respecting geographic boundaries, keeping districts compact, and enhancing electoral competition. This approach is already employed in Arizona, Hawaii, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington State, and is on the ballot this Tuesday in California and Ohio.

Congressman John Tinner, a Tennessee Democrat, has introduced legislation to create non-partisan redistricting commissions in every state. The commissions would be barred from considering voters’ party affiliations or voting history when constructing district lines. Redistricting commissions would emphasize continuity of neighborhoods, municipalities, and counties. Congressional redistricting would be limited to once every ten years.

A second, complementary approach to enhancing electoral competition would be to create multi-member districts for both Congress and state legislatures. For example, a state with 20 Congressional districts could be divided into four super-districts of five seats each. Voters in these districts would vote for candidates in order of preference, ranking as many (or as few) as they wished. The threshold of victory would be established to allow for only five winners.

Non-partisan redistricting and multi-member districts could make American elections more competitive. They could help restore American democracy.

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