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Washington Post

Broken Democracy
November 10, 2002

The magnitude of incumbency's triumph in last week's elections for the House of Representatives was so dramatic that the term "election" -- with its implications of voter choice and real competition -- seems almost too generous to describe what happened on Tuesday. Voters went to the polls, and they cast ballots, and they did so without coercion. Yet somehow, at the end of the day, 98 percent of House incumbents seeking reelection won -- and by margins that suggest that many of the races were never serious.

According to data from the Center for Voting and Democracy, the average winning candidate received more than 70 percent of the vote. Seventy-eight candidates ran without major-party opposition. In only 75 of the 435 House races did the margin of victory fall short of 20 points.

A major, though certainly not the only, reason for this acclamation of incumbents is the corruption of the redistricting process eagerly entered into by both parties. Redistricting, which redraws congressional districts following the census every decade, ought to be designed to make districts more competitive and to make incumbents more accountable. Yet in practice, state legislatures proceed with two aims in mind -- protecting incumbents from challenge and maximizing partisan advantage. Sometimes, the process is used to oust representatives of the other party -- as Maryland Democrats did to Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella this year. More often, gerrymanders are designed to protect incumbents: Thus, Virginia was happy to preserve one Democratic district for Rep. James P. Moran Jr. to ensure Republican districts for Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf. Such districts then tend to elect members who are more conservative or more liberal than the populations of their states as a whole. The result: Congressional delegations are divided ideologically and the center is weak.

There is a big and heartening exception to this tendency: Iowa. In Iowa, redistricting is handled in the first instance by a non-political bureau using only apolitical demographic criteria. The goal is to produce compact districts and to keep political communities intact. And Iowa districts are significantly more competitive than the national norm. This year was no exception. While Iowa incumbents -- like incumbents everywhere -- did well, they had to earn reelection. All but one Iowa race saw the winner take less than 60 percent of the vote. And the results of some of the races were very much in doubt as Election Day approached. Yet interestingly, even those most endangered by the system express confidence in it. In the midst of his tough reelection fight this year, Rep. Jim Leach told the Weekly Standard, "It's a change oriented, anti-incumbent oriented system, and that's basically healthy and that's why I support it."

Both Maryland and Virginia have something to learn from this attitude. Both states have now elected governors from parties -- the Democrats in Virginia, the Republicans in Maryland -- which fell victim to the redistricting spoils system last year. Both Gov. Mark R. Warner and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. would do their states an enormous service by leading a reform effort so that this does not happen again. This year is the perfect time for such a push. The next round of redistricting is far enough off that nobody in either state knows whose ox will be gored by leaving the current system in place. Everyone, however, can rest assured that the process will be grossly unfair to one side or the other and will maximize patronage and partisanship at the expense of accountability. The alternative -- a more professional, less political process producing elections that are actually competitive -- should be attractive to everyone.

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Copyright 2002     The Center for Voting and Democracy
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