The Election That Wasn't

Nov. 2 was an especially good day for incumbents - from the president to most members of Congress as well as in statehouses across the US.

Out of the 435 members of the House of Representatives running for reelection, a mere seven lost their seats to challengers, proving once again the benefits and power of incumbency. In fact, only 35 House seats, or 8 percent, were even considered competitive.

In the Senate, even though one-third of that body's 100 seats were up for grabs, as per the Constitution, only nine seats were really in question. And six of those were seats in which the incumbent had retired.

But put aside the advantages of name recognition, big campaign war chests, the franking privilege, or the easy media access incumbents enjoy. Ever more Congressional House races are becoming noncompetitive thanks to computer-assisted redistricting that uses finer and finer polling and demographic data about voters. Few districts are now drawn to reflect a broad range of voters. In some states, parties even collude to gerrymander seats so each one has little chance of serious challenge.

That reduces the contest of ideas that drives democracy. Legislative offices need fresh faces along with experienced hands to avoid entrenchment in lawmaking bodies.

In Texas, four Democrats lost their House seats this election because their districts had been redrawn after a hotly contested redistricting battle engineered by the state's GOP majority. In California's state capitol, all 100 of the state's Assembly and Senate races were won by an incumbent, or a candidate from the incumbent's party, thanks to redistricting in that state.

Many incumbents don't even feel a need to publicly debate their challengers. Yet televised debates are one effective anti-incumbent tool. And when incumbents win by landslides, as many did earlier this month, potential challengers don't even bother to run.

Lobbyists, too, favor incumbents, according to a recent study by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. Every senator who sought reelection this year (26) received money from lobbyists, according to the study. Just six of the challengers got funds from registered lobbyists.

One way to start fixing the growing incumbency problem is to pull redistricting matters away from state lawmakers and turn the process over to an independent redistricting commission, such as those in Iowa and Washington State, an idea voters can press.

The Supreme Court also has a new redistricting case on its docket, and hence, an opportunity to make a course correction away from overprotecting incumbents and maintaining the stagnant legislative status quo.

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