by Brian Cannon
The United States has a dearth of competitive Congressional elections. Of the 435 voting seats in the House of Representatives, only 36 were competitive this past November. Politicians have brilliantly gerrymandered out almost all competition from their districts to ensure themselves easy re-elections. With only about 8% of our elections considered competitive in 2016, President Reagan’s words in 1988 still ring true:
With a 98% rate of re-election, there’s less turnover in the House [of Representatives] than in the Supreme Soviet, and a seat in Congress is one of the most secure jobs in America.
Many factors work against competitive districts – residential sorting, incumbency advantages in campaign finance laws, and gerrymandering all play a role. The first two, however, have First Amendment protections that make them tricky, if not impossible, to address through systematic reform. The last – gerrymandering – does not have a constitutional protection and there are clear legislative paths to address this problem. Confronting gerrymandering also seems to address this competitiveness problem.
A careful examination of the few competitive districts we have shows a clear take away: States with redistricting reform are producing a much larger share of competitive districts than those without reform. Competitive districts are coming from states like Iowa, California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Washington and even New Jersey. Disproportionately so.
• In 2016, of the 36 competitive seats, 15 came from just seven reform states (41.67%).
• In 2014, of the 46 competitive seats, 21 came from those seven reform states (45.65%).
The reform states make up 30% of the seats in the House of Representatives and have created 44% of our competition. Projecting this out with some back-of-the-envelope math based on 2014 and 2016 numbers, we’d have about 60 total competitive seats for our lower chamber if the remaining 44 states adopted reform. Reform doesn’t ensure competition everywhere, but it helps take the politician’s hand from the scale in potential swing districts.
Fortunately, more states are coming on board. Ohio and New York have instituted reform for the upcoming decade with promise of other states following suit. As Henrico resident Mark Hile said recently in a letter supporting redistricting reform to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “If we want better government, let’s expose it to some competition.”
Brian Cannon is executive director of OneVirginia2021.