Noncompetitive Congressional Elections Raise Concerns About Fair Representation

Posted by Kelsey Kober on September 23, 2016

The act of selecting leaders is vital to a democracy, with elections giving citizens the chance to elect new leaders to represent them and to oust representatives who aren’t meeting their needs. However, in 34 Congressional districts in 2016, voters won’t be making a choice. These 34 districts are held by incumbents who faced no opposition in their party’s primary and no major party competition in the general election. They constitute roughly one in 10 Congressional districts, with incumbents in an additional 88 districts lacking a primary challenger and another 51 incumbents sailing back into office without a major party challenger in the general election. This lack of competition is corrosive to our democracy, with the potential to depress voter turnout and worsen polarization.

Our current "winner-take-all" system fuels uncommunicative elections

Our current winner-take-all electoral system, combined with the tendency for Americans to live in communities with politically like-minded people,  ensures that most congressional districts are safe for one or other party. The predictability of election results, as documented in our Monopoly Politics 2016 report, discourages new voices from running and means we see minimal competition in elections.

A closer look at the 34 uncontested incumbents reveals that a majority of them are in districts that are safe for one party or the other (see the table below). In districts with lopsided partisanship, candidates from the minority party are often in short supply (or non-existent), as their chances of winning are minimal. Additionally, political parties will often be reluctant to squander resources by funding a candidate if that district always elects a candidate from the other side.

Congressional Incumbents Who Faced No Competition in the Primary and General Election:

Incumbent

State

District

District Democratic Partisanship

Party

Michael Capuano

Massachusetts

7

81.49%

D

Lucille Roybal-Allard

California

40

80.54%

D

Jackie Speier

California

14

73.34%

D

Eliot Engel

New York

16

72.14%

D

Terri Sewell

Alabama

7

70.69%

D

David Scott

Georgia

13

67.64%

D

Peter Welch

Vermont

AL

65.94%

D

Brendan Boyle

Pennsylvania

13

64.69%

D

Katherine Clark

Massachusetts

5

64.09%

D

Richard Neal

Massachusetts

1

62.89%

D

Raúl Grijalva

Arizona

3

60.29%

D

Jim McGovern

Massachusetts

2

57.79%

D

Joaquin Castro

Texas

20

57.64%

D

Nita Lowey

New York

17

55.64%

D

Daniel Lipinski

Illinois

3

54.69%

D

Sean Moulton

Massachusetts

6

53.44%

D

Adam Kinzinger

Illinois

16

44.19%

R

John Moolenaar

Michigan

4

44.04%

R

Mike Kelly

Pennsylvania

3

41.74%

R

Buddy Carter

Georgia

1

41.59%

R

Scott Perry

Pennsylvania

4

40.24%

R

Tom Marino

Pennsylvania

18

39.59%

R

Tim Murphy

Pennsylvania

10

37.19%

R

Darin LaHood

Illinois

18

36.39%

R

Rick Crawford

Arkansas

1

35.69%

R

Bruce Westerman

Arkansas

4

35.09%

R

Jody Hice

Georgia

10

34.94%

R

Brett Guthrie

Kentucky

2

33.94%

R

Jeb Hensarling

Texas

5

32.99%

R

Steve Womack

Arkansas

3

31.09%

R

Adrian Smith

Nebraska

3

27.04%

R

Brian Babin

Texas

36

24.29%

R

Michael Conaway

Texas

11

18.24%

R

Mac Thornberry

Texas

13

17.19%

R

 

But it is not only very safe districts with lopsided partisanship that suffer from a lack of competition and in which incumbents can sail to re-election without facing any challengers.  A look at Massachusetts’s sixth district, with a Democratic partisanship of 53.4, shows that a dearth of competition is possible even in a district without a partisanship that heavily favors one party.  This reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of districts consistently vote for a presidential candidate of the same party as their Representative in Congress and that districts with a partisanship more than 4 points from 50 almost never elect a candidate from the minority party in the district. In the case of MA-6, as many as 46% of the electorate is denied the opportunity to vote for--much less, elect-- a candidate from their preferred party. But more than that, all voters are denied a chance to view an electoral exchange of ideas that is crucial for a vibrant democracy.

Looking at the two uncontested incumbents in California from districts 14 and 40 suggests that an alternative primary structure--while a step in the right direction-- isn’t enough to remedy this lack of competition. California holds a “top-two” primary, in which all voters can vote for any primary candidate and the two top vote-getters at the primary eventually compete in the general election regardless of party affiliation. However, many California Republican voters were effectively disenfranchised in these two districts, since their Democratic incumbents ran unopposed in the primary and were the only candidate in the general. This shows that while primary reform is certainly necessary, more transformative changes to the structure of our Congressional representation, are needed to fix the extreme lack of competition in Congressional elections.

Structural reforms would encourage more competition

FairVote’s proposed fair representation voting system would drive increased competition in congressional districts. One of the ways this would occur would be through ranked choice voting (RCV), which would allow voters to rank candidates in order of choice instead of merely picking one. RCV has a number of benefits. For instance, third party candidates would likely enjoy more support, as voters would no longer consider them “spoiler” candidates. Additionally, the adoption of ranked choice voting would help alleviate the current hyper-partisan nature of campaigns. A 2016  study found that voters who participated in elections using ranked-choice voting experienced less negative campaigning than voters who participated in traditional elections.

Fair representation voting combines the benefits of ranked choice voting with multi-winner districts. This combination would ensure fair representation for all of a district’s constituents. Having voters select multiple members from larger districts using RCV would erase the problems associated with gerrymandering and would ensure accurate representation of all demographics of citizens instead of merely packing one demographic into a single district. As FairVote’s research has shown, multi-winner districts would simultaneously facilitate more accurate representation of women and people of color and promote higher levels of competition in Congressional elections.

The complete lack of competition in nearly one-tenth of all Congressional districts proves that our electoral system needs serious reform, and fair representation voting can bring about this change. 

 

Image Courtesy: Ron Cogswell

 

 

 

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