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Get Your Election Results Here!
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie 
November 3, 2002

If we said we could predict the winners in three-quarters of the horse races at Suffolk Downs, you'd say the fix is in. But when it comes to the 435 races for the U.S. House on November 5, the fix really IS in.

Even before the polls open on Election Day, we can tell you the winners in more than three out of four races. For all intents and purposes, most House races have been over for months. No wonder that barely a third of adults will bother voting this year -- the lowest national election turnout in the world among long-time democracies. Most Americans simply have given up on stale, noncompetitive congressional elections. Turnout in primaries this year was a mere 17% of adults.

So here are our predictions for this year's House races, taken from our new report called "Monopoly Politics": Democrats will win 159 seats in the House, 104 by lopsided landslides and 41 by a comfortable spread of 10 points or more. The Republicans will win 173 seats, 91 by landslides and 59 by a comfortable 10-point spread. A total of 332 seats are locked up for one party or the other, and most of the remaining districts won't be competitive either due to weak challengers. More than 95% of incumbents will again cruise to victory, usually by huge margins.

We have made predictions for previous House elections, and those predictions were 99.8% accurate. What is perhaps most interesting is that we make our predictions so confidently without knowing anything at all about inequities in campaign financing between the candidates or the qualities of the incumbent or challenger.

We can do this because of a simple fact: most districts tilt strongly toward one major party or the other, courtesy of the redistricting process. That's when legislative district lines are redrawn by the dominant political party and manipulated to favor those already in power. Think of it as "insider trading," just like Enron or Martha Stewart - except this is political insider trading.

How bad can this political insider trading get? Consider this: The 2001 redistricting in California, which was dominated by the Democratic Party, raised "incumbent protection plans" to a crass new level. Democratic incumbents in the U.S. House forked over $20,000 apiece to a political consultant to draw the district lines in such a way as to guarantee their re-election. The money was tantamount to a bribe, the type of "protection money" one might pay to a local mafia don to protect your turf. It's no accident that every single California incumbent is projected to win, nearly all by big margins.

What's the end result of this shenanigans? Most voters have become bunkered down in safe, one-party districts where their only viable choice is to ratify the candidate -- usually the incumbent -- of the party that dominates their district. If you are a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, a Republican in a solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party, you don't have a chance of electing your candidate, no matter how much money your candidate spends. While we think of ours as a two-party system, in fact, 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. It also undercuts campaign finance reform. Compared to the lopsided nature of most House districts, campaign finance inequities are of secondary importance in determining who wins and loses most legislative elections in November (big money has its greatest impact in primary races). The fact that gerrymandered districts control outcomes allows big spenders to focus all their campaign resources on a handful of close races that will determine which party wins control over the U.S. House of Representatives.

The sad fact is that for most voters who care about which party controls the House, it will be more effective for them to donate money to a candidate in a competitive race halfway across the nation than vote in their own districts. It's little wonder that so many voters are losing interest. Our votes count for too little, whether cast on the latest touchscreen machines or antiquated punchcards. And this contributes to an alarming level of apathy and resignation.

Monopoly politics is no way to run a democracy. To improve voter choice, we should start by following Iowa's example, and take the redistricting process out of incumbents' hands and give it to independent nonpartisan commissions with a mandate to make our legislative races more competitive.

But we won't return choice and empowerment to voters unless we join most other modern democracies in transforming our "winner take all" elections. We should break up the single-seat districts and try multi-seat districts elected by a system of proportional representation. With proportional representation, if a political party's candidates win 20 percent of the popular vote, they win 20 percent of the legislative seats, instead of nothing. If the candidates win a total of 60 percent of the vote they get 60 percent of the seats, instead of nothing. The use of proportional representation produces more competitive elections and allows more voters to have a fair chance to win representation.

Illinois' state legislature used such a system for 110 years until 1980, and the Chicago Tribune has written that "it produced some the best and brightest in Illinois politics." A bipartisan commission chaired by former Democratic congressman Abner Mikva and former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar concluded that junking the single-seat district system and returning to Illinois' proportional system would increase competition and voter choice, decrease bitter partisanship, and decrease regional balkanization between cities and the rest of the state. Those are benefits that our national politics could use as well.

Oddly, for a representative democracy, the public itself is becoming practically bystanders, with decreasing participation and declining expectations as voters are sliced and diced right out of the political process. Our "winner take all" system is utterly failing us, and without badly needed reform the situation only will get worse.

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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