Posted on January 15, 2010
In this eighth edition, Dubious Democracy 2008 provides a comprehensive assessment of the level of competition and accuracy of representation in U.S. House elections in all 50 states from 1982 to 2008. It ranks each state on a “democracy index” that is a relative measurement based on average margin of victory, percentage of seats to votes, how many voters elect candidates and number of House races won by overwhelming landslides.
Some highlighted national facts concerning the 2008 elections include:
- Sky-high incumbency rates. Only 19 incumbents lost to challengers and eight in ten incumbents were re-elected by “landslide” margins of at least 20 percentage points.
- Landslides. In 12 states, every race was won by a landslide margin of at least 20 percentage points. Only four states (all with one or two seats) recorded no landslide win.
- High victory margins. The average victory margin was a whopping 40 percentage points. Seven of every ten (73%) U.S. House races were won by landslide margins of at least 20 percentage points. Only 50 races (11%) were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percentage points.
- Apathy. Nearly one out of every 12 voters skipped over their House race on the ballot and one in three eligible voters did not vote for a winning House representative.
Additionally, the report includes alarming statistics from nearly every state in the “facts in focus” section. Here are just a few “lowlights” from the states:
- Arkansas: in 2008, every US House race in Arkansas was uncontested by a major party.
- Connecticut: in 2008, Republican US House candidates earned 33% of votes statewide, but 0 of 5 seats.
- Iowa : Iowa is the biggest of three states that have never elected a women or racial minority to the US House.
- Kentucky: only 36% of eligible voters in Kentucky elected anyone to the US House in 2008.
- Louisiana: in 2008 US House races in Louisiana, 93% of Democratic votes were wasted, electing only 1 of 7 seats.
- Ohio: since 1998, Ohio incumbents have won 96 of 97 US House races.
Dubious Democracy has one overriding message: although our constitutional framers gave the House of Representatives extraordinary powers and, of all the branches of government, the clearest accountability to the American people, that accountability has been destroyed beyond all recognition. This breakdown of democratic accountability can be measured in different ways. Here are two:
- Accountability of leadership: since 1952, the White House has changed partisan control seven times in 14 elections, while voters have changed control of the U.S. House just twice in 28 elections. This means that voters are seven times more likely to change the party running the White House than “the people’s house.”
- Voter choice: the last decade of elections resulted in the two least competitive House elections in American history by most standards. In each of the four national elections between 1998 and 2004, more than 98% of incumbents won, and more than 90% of all races were won by non-competitive margins of more than 10 percentage points. In 2006 and 2008, the elections’ competitiveness was slightly improved, but still 95% of incumbents won and 87% of all races were won by non-competitive margins of more than 10 percentage points.
As we look at how strikingly non-competitive House elections have become in the past thirty years, we must confront the fact that by far the most important factor is that the U.S. House is elected by winner-take-all, single-member districts. Winner-take-all elections held with plurality voting rules tend to limit general elections to candidates from two parties. Given that the great majority of geographically-defined areas in the nation show clear preference for one party over the other, most incumbents have virtually a free ride in general elections because their party is preferred in their district. The problem of lack of competition, even in those relatively few districts that are more balanced, has become more pronounced for several reasons:
- incumbents and parties are more sophisticated about what incumbent officeholders should do in serving their district to shield themselves from competition;
- new computerized methods of redistricting, combined with the need to draw new districts every ten years and the lack of nonpartisan standards governing the process, increase more districts with a tilt toward one party and/or particular incumbents;
- those partisan tilts are more decisive than ever because the national parties have become quite distinct in most voters’ minds, leading to less ticket-splitting.
The end result is that most voters don’t have a real choice between two candidates, let alone three-- undermining a healthy two-party system, where issues ignored by one major party can be meaningfully addressed by the other. If voters would like to hear about the policy ideas of independent and third party candidates, they’re even more shut out. Yes, voter turnout is down in non-presidential elections in recent decades, but it’s time to stop blaming the victims of the American electoral system – the voters – and start addressing the root causes of alienation and lack of representation: our winner-take-all electoral system, buttressed by incumbent privileges, campaign cash and partisan redistricting run amok.
FairVote – The Center for Voting and Democracy advocates for changes that promote voter choice and fair representation, such as: proportional voting methods, instant runoff voting and public interest redistricting methods. These reforms can greatly improve representation and accountability, increase competition, enhance debate of issues and ultimately improve public policy and national unity. Dubious Democracy 2008 makes it clear that serious consideration of these changes is long overdue.