News Article and Commentaries on Non-competitive Elections

October 2000

"For most incumbents in Congress, re-election is a sure bet," By Carl Weiser, Gannett News Service, Friday, October 20, 2000; The Ithaca Journal

"Elections Give Voters Too Little Say ," by Lee Mortimer, a founding member of the Center for Voting and Democracy, published in the Raleigh News and Observer, Charlotte News and Observer, Houston Chronicle and other publications

"Cash won't turn race for Congress: Want to know who will win? Check district's partisan affiliations," by John Gear, in the Lansing State Journal.


For most incumbents in Congress, re-election is a sure bet

By Carl Weiser, Gannett News Service
Friday, October 20, 2000; The Ithaca Journal

Marlin Schriver raises turkeys for a living. So when he stopped for lunch at Johnny�s Diner here, he ordered a ham steak the size of a hubcap.

�I am tired of eating turkey, he said.

Good thing for Schriver he can choose his lunch. When it comes to choosing a congressman, he and the 566,000 other residents of Pennsylvania�s 9th District have only one selection: Republican Rep. Bud Shuster � whose ethical misdeeds prompted his colleagues this month to declare him a �discredit to the house.�

�Everybody would like to have a choice, but who�d run against him?� asked Diner owner Dan �Bear� Robinson 39.

In every election but one since 1984, the answer has been: No one. And Shuster is far from the only member of Congress without competition.

Out of 435 House seats, 64 members this year have no major-party opponent, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy. About 300 or so face only token opposition , according to experts and House members.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the national Republican Congressional Committee, recently boasted to reporters about GOP incumbents: �185 guys are back without worrying about it.�

Democrats put their number of untouchable incumbents at 190, said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

That adds up to more than 85 percent of House members who are considered shoo-ins.

The struggle for control of the House centers on 20 to 30 competitive districts � such as Lansing, Mich.; Montgomery County, Pa.; suburban Chicago; and a district around Muskogee, Okla.

The 200 million Americans who live outside the battleground districts are just spectators.

�The House is in play. Yes, so exciting � but only for about one in 10 people,� said Robert Ritchie, Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, whose report on the 1998 elections, �Dubious Democracy,� chronicled the decline of competitive districts. The average House incumbent, for example, won by an average of 43 percentage points in 1998.

The scene is the same in the Senate. Of the 28 incumbents running for re-election, only about a dozen face serious competition. In Arizona, Democrats couldn�t get any of their 800,000 party members to run against Sen. Jon Kyl, Veteran Senators like Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, face light challenges.

 �it�s going to be a great year for incumbents,� said Charles Cook, editor of a closely watched political newsletter. �There is every single indicator out there that the re-election rate could be 97 or 98 percent and could theoretically get to 99 percent and be a record.

Incumbents have always enjoyed the advantages of free press and name recognition, but it is getting even easier for them lately. Their 98.3 percent re-election rate in 1998 matched their best year since World War II.

Ritchie said the effect of this lack of competition is �poisonous partisanship� in Congress, since members from one-party districts have little need to be moderate. It has also contributed, he said, to declining voter turnout. There�s little reason to vote if there�s no choice.

�In fairness to the public, who do they protest to?� said Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity.

Neither Davis nor his Democratic counterparts worry about unchallenged incumbents. The Democrats� Del Cecato joked that the only problem is when GOP members are unopposed; Davis quipped, I�ve been opposed and I�ve been unopposed. Unopposed is better.�

The situation may change in 2002, after new congressional districts are drawn based on the census and some incumbents find themselves facing a new constituency or even a fellow incumbent.

But in the debate after a census, �things get settled, and that�s where we are right now, Ritchie said.

The most daunting hurdle potential challengers face is how to raise enough money. Running for Congress is so expensive that the parties target the few races they believe they can actually win.

�That�s a recognition that most incumbents are unbeatable,� Davis said.

In 1998, the average House incumbent raised nearly $600,000 for re-election; the average challenger, $67,000, according to the Federal Election Commission. The average senator raised $4,4 million; challengers less than $1 million. To demonstrate this financial disadvantage, John Gillespie, the long-shot Republican trying to oust Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, hands out peanuts to illustrate his �running on peanuts� campaign.

>Even without an opponent, Shuster routinely spends more than $1 million on his re-election campaign in Pennsylvania. One of the reasons the House ethics committee sanctioned him was for apparently spending his campaign money on fancy meals, nice hotels and other personal uses.

The committee this month, after a four-year investigation, also criticized Shuster for accepting improper gifts and giving access to a lobbyist who used to work for him.

On Sunday, �60 Minutes detailed how Shuster and Ann Eppard, once his top aide and now a transportation lobbyist, enjoy a beneficial relationship in Washington: She raises money for him. In return, �60 Minutes� and watching groups allege, he doles out transportation projects to her clients.

Experts say the lack of opposition to Shuster insulates him from criticism.

�Certainly if it was a competitive district, it would be much, much harder to act the way he did,� said Ritchie.

But Shuster remains popular despite his ethical lapses, and many here say they do not mind that he has no opponent. As chairman of the House transportation committee, Shuster has draped his district in taxpayer-financed public works projects.

The general consensus on his ethics troubles is that he�s no worse than anyone else.

�Sorry to say, I think they�re all like that,� said craft store owner Alice Reams. �I don�t know whose fault it is, ours or theirs. We voted �em in.�


Elections Give Voters Too Little Say

Lee Mortimer, a founding member of the Center for Voting and Democracy, recently wrote the following commentary. It has appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer, Charlotte News and Observer, Houston Chronicle and other publications.  

With a wide-open race for the White House and control of the U.S. House of Representatives at stake, campaign 2000 is shaping up as one of the hardest-fought in recent memory.

Yet the respected Committee for the Study of the American Electorate predicts Nov. 7 could see an all-time low for voter turnout -- even lower than 1996, when less than half the voting-age population came out for a presidential election. Some analysts say Americans are disillusioned with the power of money in politics. Others say voters are content, and that good economic times make us less inclined to throw the rascals out.

A simpler but more fundamental explanation -- borne out in surveys by the Pew Research Center -- is that people believe their votes don't count. It's hard to motivate the players if they feel they're not really in the game.

The rate of U.S. voting has been higher in the past, but always low compared to most democracies. Now it has been more undermined by one-party-dominated elections, widespread "gerrymandering" of legislative districts and the effects of the Electoral College.

The presidential election, of course, is actually 50 separate winner-take-all state elections. The candidate with the most votes in each state wins all of that state's electoral votes. (Nebraska and Maine allocate some of their electoral votes by congressional district.)

Most states are reliably won by one major party. That means that the only real way people in those states can help their candidate (aside from sending money) is to move to one of eight or 10 "battleground states," like Michigan or Ohio, whose electoral votes will decide the election.

Winner-take-all elections waste votes and subvert competition. The "two-party system" usually means a one-party Democratic system or a one-party Republican system, depending on the state or legislative district. Rather than compete, the two parties dominate within their respective spheres.

Only six of 435 seats need to change hands for Democrats to gain control of the U.S. House. But fewer than one in ten congressional seats were won by less than 10% in 1998, and more than 80 percent of districts could be certified as "safe" for one party a year ago. Voters in those districts will have no role in shaping the next Congress.

Most state legislative districts are, likewise, strongholds for the incumbent-party legislator. More than two in five state legislative elections weren't even contested by one or the other major parties in 1998. Few of the rest were competitive, and the rate of incumbent re-election consistently is well over 90%. Most legislators can take their constituents for granted, even those who voted for them.

Most legislative contests are settled in the primary by the most active partisans. Incumbents rarely lose -- in fact, as many U.S House Members have died in office as lost in primaries since 1994. Furthermore, primary voters tend to be a fraction of the voters who turn out for the general election in November. But lopsided outcomes typically render general elections meaningless.

It's not that most supporters of a major party are completely sold on that party. But when their only other choice is the other major party, most consider that shift goes too far in the opposite direction. Independent or third party candidacies could give those voters more meaningful options.

Viable competition can only be achieved through restructured elections. Abolishing the antiquated Electoral College would re-enfranchise voters in some 40 states, who today are effectively excluded from presidential elections. That would require a constitutional amendment.

But state legislatures or even local governments can enact other reforms for local, state and most federal elections, such as easier ballot access, instant-runoff voting and proportional representation.

If voters want competitive elections, they will have to demand them from elected officials who have grown satisfied with the status quo.

[Lee Mortimer is a North Carolina member of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C.: 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 901, Takoma Park, MD 20912,]


Cash won't turn race for Congress
Want to know who will win? Check district's partisan affiliations.

John Gear of East Lansing, Michigan is a policy analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy. His column appeared in the Lansing State Journal on October 17, 2000

Will Rogers said it best: "It's not what you don't know that hurts you -- it's what you know for sure that's wrong."

Campaign "common sense" says that big money controls who wins Congressional seats. One leading campaign finance reform advocate says "In most congressional districts in the country, the election has already been decided, because incumbents have such a huge financial advantage." If only it was that simple!

At the Center for Voting and Democracy, we study how voting systems affect representation and participation. We study factors that decide elections and make people feel their vote matters -- or doesn't. If political reporting worked like sports or science news (where dramatic upsets and startling new discoveries get big headlines), our work would be front page news in the papers and discussed on every talk show.

Because what we have shown in our Monopoly Politics reports (available at is that, on money and politics, the conventional wisdom is simply wrong.

What our studies show is this: rather than deciding races, money generally flows where donor/investors know the outcome has already been decided by incumbency and the partisan tilt in most districts. Thus, the "foregone conclusion" nature of most House races does not result primarily from campaign finance inequities.

In other words, there is a reason that the British House of Lords, with its lifetime appointments, has more turnover than the U.S. Congress. But that reason isn't money -- it's that the parties get to draw the districts, which lets them choose precisely which voters will be allowed to choose candidates in November.

How do we know? Simple. We put the conventional wisdom ("Money decides who wins Congressional races") to the test. We said that, if we could build a model that ignores money but still predicts elections accurately, then we know that money isn't the factor everyone thinks it is.

So the acid test is this: the better we can predict the winners in Congressional races while ignoring money the more it says money isn't the key factor. And if, without considering money, our model falls flat, then campaign finances really is decisive. Remember, the only things our model uses are the partisan tilt of the each district and the presence of an incumbent.

Our results? For the last three elections, we have predicted, with very great accuracy, an amazingly high percentage of Congressional winners -- and even their victory margins! If money ruled, we wouldn't be able to ignore it and still have a prediction record that would awe Vegas oddsmakers.

When we focus exclusively on campaign finance reform we're tilting at windmills, mistaking them for dragons, while missing more significant causes of no-choice elections. As we have shown, what's really bedeviling us are winner-take-all, single-member districts, which parties draw with exquisite care to produce the results they want. There's no Constitutional basis for it, and Congress can change it. First though, we have to let go of ideas we're sure are correct -- but really aren't.