Noncompetitive Elections for Congress

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Monday, December 11, 2000
Two unhappy statistics leap out from Election Day 2000. The first is that well under half of the nation's eligible voters participated in selecting the first Congress of the new millennium. When smaller numbers of Americans vote, our representative democracy simply cannot work as it was designed to, because the fewer people who vote will have a much greater say in the decisions that affect the lives of everyone. Power flows to those who participate. Our country is strengthened by the active participation of its diverse people, yet that's not what has been happening in recent years. 

But an equally troubling statistic is that the vast majority of races for Congress– in both the House and Senate, but especially in the House– were noncompetitive. In the election just past, almost 90% of the Republicans and Democrats running for the House were elected by a margin of 10 points or more, and often a whole lot more: Half of the Republican winners and 63% of the Democratic winners had margins of more than 30 points. Of the 435 House seats before the voters in November, only about 20 were seriously in play. At the risk of upsetting my former colleagues in the Congress, I'd like to suggest that more competitive elections are better for the country. 

Noncompetitive elections tend to decrease Member-constituent contact, and when so many contests are that lopsided, it's easy to understand why more people don't vote. Yet from my point of view, one of the most serious consequences is that noncompetitive elections have helped fuel the increased 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 to approach issues in a bipartisan manner. As the percentage of noncompetitive races has steadily risen in recent decades, so has the partisanship in our national political life. 

Yet turning this around will not be easy. Many factors are involved, including the overwhelming advantages of incumbency and lopsided fundraising capabilities. But a particular problem is the way the boundaries of congressional districts are drawn. 

Often overlooked is that in many states Democrats and Republicans cooperate to suppress real competition in House elections. This happens during the redistricting process at the outset of each decade, when the boundaries of House districts are redrawn to make their populations equal. 

This is one area in which the interests of the two parties come together. Republican Members want more Republicans in their districts, and Democratic Members want more Democrats. Aided by sophisticated computer mapping technology that can precisely identify and assemble precincts with conservative or liberal bents, Members help state legislatures develop electoral maps that make it easier for them to win re-election. 

This process is typically very cordial, since it benefits incumbents in both parties. And because politicians are not yelling at each other, the media pay little attention. Few realize that both parties' incumbents are helping to draw lines that will discourage competition for the next decade. 

Don't get me wrong: There's nothing necessarily bad about incumbents winning re-election. What is unfortunate is that many of the occupants of these one-sided districts come to Washington holding fast to an ideological line. When they listen mostly to the group in their district that can assure their reelection, they diminish the participation of citizens possessing different opinions. Representatives from one-sided districts won't pay a price at the polls if they refuse to negotiate or compromise with others in the House who have differing opinions. To the contrary, they might become more popular in their home bases. 

This process explains much of the reason why we have seen more legislators in Washington in recent years digging in their heels instead of pursuing middle ground. Public opinion polls may report that people say they don't like partisanship and gridlock in politics. But in the only poll that counts - the one on Election Day - an overwhelming number of districts across the country elect House members who have very little incentive to bridge the partisan divide in Congress. With the next round of redistricting right around the corner, we all need to pay more attention to make sure that the interests of incumbents to protect their seats is balanced against the broader interests of the country in competitive elections. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)div>