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.