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Charlotte Observer

Election results easy to predict: Absurdly low turnout and one-party districts shape the outcome
October 25, 2002 
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

On Nov. 5, Americans will elect our national legislature. With a looming war against Iraq, soaring budget deficit and razor-thin division between the major parties in both the U.S. House and Senate, this promises to be one of the most momentous congressional elections in memory.

Yet, to a startling extent, the fix already is in. We can safely make two troubling predictions about Election Day.

First, barely a third of adults will participate -- the lowest national election turnout in the world among longtime democracies. Most Americans simply have tuned out congressional elections. Turnout in primaries this year was 17 percent of adults.

Second, more than 95 percent of incumbents will again cruise to victory, usually by huge margins. In fact, our Center for Voting and Democracy has predicted the results in 76 percent of U.S. House races without relying on a shred of information about the quality of challengers and incumbents' voting record, constituent service and campaign financing. Not only that, but we have predicted their victory margins. Applying our method to House elections from 1996 to 2000, our predictions were 99.8 percent accurate.

This year we project 332 winners for 435 seats, including 195 candidates winning by landslide margins of at least 20 percent, and an additional 100 by comfortable margins of at least 10 percent. Most of the remaining districts won't be competitive either, due to weak challengers. To find out your likely representative, visit

We make our predictions so confidently because of a simple fact: Most districts tilt clearly toward one major party. While such partisan imbalance can be inescapable, as lonely Massachusetts Republicans and Utah Democrats will attest, it often comes courtesy of the redistricting process.

In redistricting, incumbents and party leaders have the God-like power to draw their own district lines so as to decide in advance which party will win most elections. Once district lines are set, most congressional and state legislative races become predictably cozy snoozers. Voters become bunkered down in safe, one-party districts where their only viable choice is to ratify the candidate of the party that dominates their district.

While we think of ours as a two-party system, most voters' frame of reference for legislative races is that of a one-party system.

This fact directly undercuts voter enthusiasm and public debate about issues. The sad fact is that if you care about which party controls the House, the odds are that it will be more effective to donate money to a candidate in a competitive race halfway across the nation than vote yourself.

It's little wonder that so many lose interest.

To improve voter choice, we should start by following Iowa's model and take the redistricting process out of incumbents' hands. Congress historically has set national redistricting standards and could do so again with a mere statute. But we won't bring equality, choice and power to voters unless we join most other modern democracies in reforming "winner take all" elections so that like-minded voters have a fair chance to win representation even when part of a political minority in their particular area.

In the meantime, place your bets. It's easy money when the fix is in.

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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