Why so many House races (nearly all) are noncompetitive

The outcome of 94 percent of House races is a foregone conclusion. If this happened in any country but the US, we'd question whether it was a democracy. The problem is our election system. 

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama speaks at Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, Calif., on Oct. 10, 2014. High hopes of mitigating House losses in a rough election year have been dashed by reality. Obama’s dismal approval ratings have been a drag on Democrats and, even if that were not the case, single-seat districts with plurality winners create poorly representative outcomes.

Ben Highton at the Monkey Cage:

By our estimates, in 408 of the 435 House elections, one party is favored to win with chances that exceed 90 percent.  The Republicans have better than a 90 percent chance of winning in 231 races and the Democrats have a better than 90 percent chance of winning in 177.

408 of 435 is 93.8% of the House.

Now, as I have observed before, it is profoundly problematic that Congress can have an approval rating of 12.9% (RCP average) and have that many noncompetitive House races. While approval ratings capture a lot of issues, it is reasonable to posit that a significant part of the frustration with Congress is driven by the fact that many citizens find that their interests are not well represented in that body. I would note that it is more complicated than the normal explanation that people like their own representatives, but not Congress as a whole. While this is part of the situation, more fundamentally it has to be understood that the problem is our electoral system. Single seat districts with plurality winners create poorly representative outcomes (and, as I have noted before, the primary system does not help by directing candidate selection to a a small slice of the populace – candidates who automatically win noncompetitive elections).

And no, gerrymandering is not the main issue (although in some cases it certainly can matter).  For more on this see Matthew Shugart’s post from last year:  Distortions of the US House: It’s not how the districts are drawn, but that there are (single-seat) districts. Indeed, the conclusion from Shugart’s post is worth quoting here:

The single-seat district, plurality, electoral system simply does not work for the USA anymore. It is one thing if we really are representing district interests, as the electoral system is designed to do. But the more partisan a political process is, the more the functioning of democracy would be improved by an electoral system that represents how people actually divide in their partisan preferences. The system does not do that. It does even less well the more one of the major parties finds its votes concentrated in some districts (e.g. Democrats in urban areas). Gerrymandering makes the problem worse still, but the problem is deeper: the uneasy combination of a geography-based electoral system and increasingly distinct national party identities.

Now, I will readily grant that electoral reform is hardly on the table in the United States. Further, it may never be (at least not in the foreseeable future).  However, I am at the point to where I think it is worth continually pointing out the problems the current system produces with the hope of at least sparking some readers to think about these issues.  I would love to see, at a minimum, an understanding that there are other ways for votes to become seats in the legislature (something I am confident that most Americans, even well-educated ones, simply do not know). Such an understanding does not have to translate into reform for me to be satisfied, but it would be nice to have an informed discussion. At the moment we have no such conversation in the US save in very small academic enclaves.

One thing that ongoing teaching and research (especially in my new book, co-authored with the above mentioned Shugart and others) on this and related topics has demonstrated to me is that American’s high opinion of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution blinds them to (a) learning about other systems, and (more significantly) (b) to being willing to have serious conversations about our possible shortcomings of our system. A student asked me recently if Latin Americans view their constitutions the same way citizens of the US do. I noted that while a great deal of respect is afforded to constitutions in Latin America and elsewhere in the world that there is nowhere in the world that I could think of that treated their constitutions with the near religious reverence that we do in the US.

I digress a bit here, insofar as our electoral system is not enshrined in the US Constitution. However, the basics of single seat, plurality elections dates back to the beginning because, after, that is pretty much all that had been invented at the time (and, I would wager that most Americans probably think that the system to elect members of Congress is, in fact, found in the Constitution). So while reverence for the Constitution is not, per se, the culprit here it is a proximate contributor.

In general, I am always struck when I think about these things by the following fact: We expect our football (or name your preferred sport) coaches to constantly innovate and adapt to opponents so as to produce competitive outcomes. Further, we constantly concern ourselves with competitiveness in the marketplaces (indeed, the mantra of free marketeers  is that competition makes everything better for everyone). And yet, we blithely accept wholly noncompetitive electoral contests for what is allegedly supposed to be a shining example of representative government.

At any rate:  These are issues worth thinking about if, in fact, one cares about the quality of representation of the body that makes the laws and sets the budgets of the country.

I will conclude with one thought: If we read about a country that we did not like in which 93% of legislative seats in their upcoming elections were a foregone conclusion our first thought would not be “My, how democratic they are.”  It would, in fact, be just the opposite.

Steven L. Taylor appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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