Dubious Democracy 2005

Welcome to FairVote’s 2005 release of Dubious Democracy, our biannual report on the state of democracy in elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. This is the sixth edition of Dubious Democracy, which first came out in 1995 with an analysis of election data from 1982 through 1994. We now have added election data through 2004.

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, more than half a century ago, the White House has changed partisan control six times in 13 elections (after elections in 1960, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992 and 2000), and control of the U.S. Senate has changed several times, including 5 times in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, “the people’s house” has changed control just once in 26 elections.
  • Voter choice: The past two House elections were the least competitive in American history by most standards. In each of the four national elections since 1996, more than 98% of incumbents have won, and more than 90% of all races have been won by non-competitive margins of more than 10%. These measurements clearly indicate that the problem of lack of voter choice is getting worse, not better. As our summary charts show, elections which follow redistricting are usually more competitive than others in a decade, given the inevitable shake-ups caused by new lines. But 2002 and 2004 by some key measures are still the least competitive elections in American history. Without a strong partisan shift, it’s quite possible the remaining elections of this decade will provide even less competition and opportunities for change.

Dubious Democracy 2005 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 2004. It ranks each state on a “democracy index” 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 include:

  • Sky-high incumbency rates. Only five incumbents lost to challengers in 2004 -- the second lowest in our nation’s history. Nearly nine in ten incumbents were re-elected by “landslide” margins of at least 20 percent.
  • Landslides. In 14 states, every race was won by a landslide margin of at least 20 percent in 2004. Only four states (all with less than three seats) recorded no landslide wins.
  • High victory margins. The average victory margin was a whopping 40 percent. Seven of every eight (83%) U.S. House races were won by landslide margins of at least 20 percent in 2004. Only 23 races (5%) were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percent.
  • Apathy. Nearly one out of every 11 voters skipped over their House race on the ballot. Despite a surge in turnout due to the presidential race, more than 62 percent of eligible voters – nearly two in three – 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:”

  • Florida: Incumbents won 139 of 140 House races in Florida in 1992-2004. Of 25 House races in 2004, 24 (96%) were won by landslides.
  • Massachusetts: Of the state’s 30 House races in 2000-2004, 16 were completely uncontested. Six more were won by at least 40%, and the remaining 8 won by at least 20% landslides. The state’s 65% overall margin of victory in House races was the nation’s largest; seven incumbents won their last four races by landslides.
  • Arizona: Voters adopted a redistricting reform proposal in 2000 that established a commission to draw district lines, yet competition actually decreased in the state elections in 2002-2004. Fifteen of 16 U.S. House races in these two elections were won by landslide margins of at least 20%, including four races by more than 40%.
  • California: 51 of the 53 House races held in 2004 were won by landslide margins that exceeded 20%. Of the 101 incumbents who ran for reelection in 2002 and 2004, all were reelected, and 99 of these 101 incumbents won by landslides.

As we look at how strikingly non-competitive House elections have become, 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 because their party is preferred in their district. Even in those relatively few districts that are more balanced, incumbents can use a variety of advantages coming with their office – being quick to respond to constituents’ non-partisan needs, sending out free mail to constituents, raising large sums of money -- to make their defeat nearly impossible without exposure of personal corruption or a major national partisan shift.

Recent years have exaggerated the problem of lack of competition for several reasons: (1) incumbents and parties are more sophisticated about what incumbent officeholders should do in serving their district to shield themselves from competition; (2) 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, lead to even more districts with a partisan tilt; (3) 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 choice between two candidates, let alone three-- so much for a healthy two-party system, where issues ignored by one major party can be meaningfully addressed by the other one. 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 over 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 makes it clear that serious consideration of these changes is long overdue.