The decline of House competition
Election cycle after election cycle, the battle for control of Congress is being waged in a smaller and smaller sliver of the United States. FairVote found in its 2020 Monopoly Politics Report that more than 80% of House districts were “safe” districts that were locked down by one major party or the other, with such little hope of electoral competition that we projected winners two years before the actual election. As a result, 96% of House incumbents won re-election in 2020, with very few genuine “swing” districts up for grabs. In this most recent cycle, not a single Republican incumbent was defeated, and even though all losing Democratic incumbents were defeated by Republican women or candidates of color, 2020 was consistent with the trend of declining House competition.
It has not always been this way. Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute found that in the 1800s, the turnover of House representatives averaged 45%, with numerous election cycles resulting in more new members than old. In 2018, that turnover rate dropped to about 15 percent. Further, Nate Silver found that, in 1992, there were more than a hundred representatives from “swing” districts where the “margin in the presidential race was within five percentage points of the national result.” By 2012, there were just 35 such swing districts and estimates using data from the 2016 and 2020 election cycles show a similar number in those elections as well. Even in “wave” election years like 2010 and 2018 where the incumbent president’s party saw significant backlash in the ensuing midterms, around 9 in 10 House incumbents were re-elected.
This fundamental shift is a result of several factors. Partisan gerrymandering redraws lines to eliminate competition, resulting in more districts that reliably vote for one party. The nationalization of our political process means that voters often evaluate their stance on national parties before they look at factors related to individual candidates, making split-ticket voting rarer than ever. Increasing political polarization has led to most voters being grouped into one political party or the other, resulting in partisans with increasingly negative views of their opponents. It should be no surprise, then, that while the number of swing districts has dwindled, the number of districts won by a “landslide” margin has doubled since 1992.
The importance of swing districts
The decline of competition in House races across the country begs the question: Who does determine control of the House chamber? It’s the decreasing sliver of Americans who live in so-called “swing” districts where polls, past elections, and fundamentals indicate that representation could plausibly “swing” toward either major party.
Those that live inside of swing districts effectively control the path to a House majority for major parties, resulting in higher levels of fundraising, national media coverage, and attention from parties themselves who tailor their platform and messages to such “swing” voters.
What happens to everyone outside of those swing districts? They’re left out. The DNC’s campaign arm, for example, has already announced that they’re only initially “targeting” 22 House districts for the 2022 election cycle. This has the potential to significantly skew national attention away from the interests of most voters. As Amber Fix, a reporter for the Washington Post, explained in 2018: “Because there are so few competitive districts these days, the conversation in these races could drive the national political conversation, potentially away from issues the rest of America may want to talk about.”
Swing districts look different than the rest of America
The central importance of swing districts in determining House control elevates the standing of voters both parties are scrambling to persuade who do live in such districts. These voters, though, do not look like the rest of America.
Using census data, I conducted an analysis to examine the share of African Americans among eligible voters in each 2020 swing House district compared to the general voting age population. Because swing districts can be hard to define, I used multiple measures of competitive House districts when conducting this analysis including the 45 House districts named as “tossups” in FairVote’s 2020 Monopoly Politics report (as defined by past election results and incumbency status), the broader group of 81 districts FairVote could not project (which includes both “tossup” and “lean” districts), and the 25 districts labeled as “tossup” districts by the Cook Political Report (which uses its Partisan Voting Index to measure competitiveness). The results can be found in the table below:
As this analysis clearly demonstrates, no matter how you define a swing district, African Americans were significantly underrepresented in competitive U.S. House elections in 2020. My analysis did not find a pattern of underrepresentation of other racial and ethnic minorities, such as Hispanic or Asian Americans, in 2020 swing districts. This could be a result of the racial dynamics of gerrymandering that disproportionately impact African American votes, as explained more in the following section.
This is not the first election cycle where the underrepresentation of African American voters existed. Census data analyzed by Quorum in May 2018 found that swing districts in the 2018 midterms were “nearly 50 percent less black than the average congressional district.” The think-tank Third Way found a similar underrepresentation of African Americans in swing districts during the 2014 midterm elections which were 6.2% African American compared to the country’s average that year of 12.2%.
Other demographic differences also exist between swing districts and the rest of America. Quorum found that voters in 2018 swing districts were a third more likely to have some kind of higher education, more likely to have health insurance, less likely to be in poverty, and were older on average.
Combining these characteristics, a clear problem emerges: America’s political parties are designing their policy platforms around, spending their money in, and paying attention to a part of the country that is older, whiter, and wealthier in order to attempt to forge a path to a House majority. All other voters outside of those districts, particularly African American ones, suffer from perennially uncompetitive House elections, making their representatives less beholden to their interests and their parties less attentive to them.
The path forward for fair representation
The inequities of our political system, and underrepresentation of people of color in competitive House elections, is not a one-off glitch but a symptom of the fundamental design of our political system. America’s single-member winner-take-all districts allow for a plurality of voters to dictate the representation of the entire district which, by design, limits competition in districts that reliably vote for one party or the other. Such districts also limit the representation of minority groups which rarely make up a great enough share of the district to elect their preferred candidates.
It should not be a surprise that African American voters are underrepresented each election cycle in the swing districts that determine control of the House. Partisan gerrymandering, for example, uses “packing” to concentrate reliably Democratic black voters into single districts. This practice dilutes their power as FairVote’s Khalid Pitts writes in Salon, “It's easy for Black voters — who already live close together after decades of racist banking and housing practices known as ‘redlining’ — to be drawn into districts that are 80 or 85% Black. But this limits Black voting power. It puts a ceiling on the number of districts that might elect Black representatives, or where Black residents might have a greater voice.” This practice also, in effect, makes it more likely for African American voters, who currently align heavily with the Democratic Party, to end up in uncompetitive districts thereby taking their voices out of key tossup elections.
The solution is clear: it is time to reform the electoral system that dilutes the voices of voters of color. The Fair Representation Act (H.R. 4000 in the last Congress) would create larger multi-member House districts elected using ranked choice voting, making every district a swing district as representatives could be elected without winning a plurality of the vote. The group of Republicans in reliably Democratic districts, and vice versa, would be able to elect their preferred representatives as districts would no longer have a single-winner. Communities of color would be able to also have a greater say, as their votes could no longer be gerrymandered out of the process, their districts would receive greater campaign attention, and they could elect their preferred representatives even when not making up a majority of their district. As Pitts explains, “The larger districts would take away the power of district lines to pack Blacks into a handful of seats. Ranked choice voting, meanwhile, would lower the percentage of votes needed to elect a member and create fairer and more representative congressional delegations in every state.”
In 1776, John Adams wrote that Congress “should be in miniature an exact portrait of the people at large” and “great care should be taken to effect this, and to prevent unfair, partial and corrupt elections.” The ball is now in our court to live up to these values. We cannot eliminate the inequities in our country without challenging the electoral systems that enable them. The Fair Representation Act offers us the best opportunity to do just that.