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Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy

Where Have All the Voters Gone? Series by Thomas Patterson
Part 1: Where Have All the Voters Gone?
Part 2: Why Do So Many Americans Hate Politics?
Part 3: Why Is News So Negative These Days?
Part 4: Why the Re-election of Incumbents Year After Year Is a Threat to Democracy
Part 5: Can Anything Be Done to Increase Voter Participation?

In last week's third installment of this five-part series, I discussed how changes in the news media have contributed to the decline in voter involvement during the past four decades. The decline includes sharp drops in primary and general election turnout and even steeper drops in attention to televised debates and other forms of election communication.

In this installment, I describe how changes in electoral competition--the power of incumbency and money--have dampened the incentive to participate. Evidence for this argument comes from the Vanishing Voter Project (www.vanishingvoter.org) that I co-directed at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy during the 2000 campaign. Through weekly national surveys, we interviewed nearly 100,000 Americans during the course of the campaign to discover why they are disengaging from elections.

Competition Lost

The 2002 midterm election was a pundit's dream. Party control of both the House and Senate was at issue and it appeared that even a single race could determine the balance in either chamber.

However, the intense competition for control of Congress masked the fact that the vast majority of House races were uncompetitive. Only about three dozen of the 435 House seats were actually in play in 2002. In nearly twice that many districts, there was literally no competition: the weaker major party did not bother even to nominate a candidate. And in several hundred other districts, the competition was so one-sided that the result was known even before the campaign began. As was the case in 2000, the victors in House races won by an average margin of more than two to one.

House incumbents breezed to victory in 2002, just as they have in other recent election campaigns. Ninety-eight percent of the incumbents seeking another term in the House were reelected. U.S. House races are less competitive-and by a wide margin-than those of any other freely elected national legislative body in the world. The "sweeping" Republican victory in 2002 included a pickup of only a half-dozen House seats. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a gain of 30-50 House seats was the norm. The Democrats gained 75 seats in the 1890 election and lost 116 seats in 1894.

Today's House incumbents have created a lock on the offices they hold. When the campaign finance laws were changed during the 1970s in reaction to Watergate, PACs suddenly sprouted, increasing in number from 600 to 4,000 within a decade. This new source of money turned out to be a bonanza for incumbents. PACs are reluctant to oppose politicians who are already in power. Today, upwards of 85 percent of PAC money ends up in the pockets of incumbents, who also operate year-around reelection campaigns at taxpayer expense. When members of Congress in the 1960s voted to greatly enlarge their personal staffs, they argued that the additional personnel were needed in order to offset the executive branch's domination of policy information. However, an estimated 50 percent and more of congressional staff resources are devoted to public relations, constituency service, and other activities that serve primarily to keep House members in office.

In many of the lopsided House districts in 2002, there was no campaign to speak of and the news media provided little or no coverage. Voters in these districts were deprived of an opportunity to learn of the issues and the candidates and, on Election Day, to cast a meaningful vote. California had abysmal turnout in 2002, partly as a result of a redistricting strategy built around protecting House incumbents. All but one of California's 53 House seats was decided by a margin greater than 55 percent. Analysts offer varying estimates of the effect of uncompetitive House races on turnout but 3-5 percent is a reasonable figure.

Seated senators and governors find it harder to use their offices in ways that ensure their reelection, and these positions often attract challengers who are well-heeled or well-known. Close competition for these offices in a dozen states supplied excitement and interest to the 2002 elections. The turnout average in these states was higher than it was in 1998. Yet, competitive races have become anomalies. The trend in House races is matched by what has been taking place in state legislatures. As these bodies have become more professionalized with larger staffs and salaries, and as their incumbents have learned to play the money game, electoral competition has suffered. In 2002, there were-continuing a trend-a record number of uncontested state legislative seats.

Many voters are also effectively disenfranchised by the way in which presidential primaries are structured. Front loading of the nominating schedule-the placement of a large number of state contests near the front end of the process-has led presidential hopefuls to raise and spend tens of millions on these early contests in an effort to secure nomination with a decisive victory on Super Tuesday. One effect is to make money the king of the nominating process. Not since John Connally in 1980 has the candidate who has raised the most money before the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire lost a nominating race. A second effect is to deprive millions of citizens the opportunity to cast a meaningful vote. Bush and Gore's Super Tuesday victories in 2000 completely devalued the yet-to-be-held presidential primaries and caucuses. Turnout in these states was a third lower than that in the early-contest states and would have been next to nothing if nominations for other offices were not being contested. Our Vanishing Voter surveys revealed that residents of the late-scheduled states were also much less likely to talk about the campaign and to follow news about it. They were also less informed about the candidates and issues.

In the 1970s, when the nominating schedule unfolded a state at a time until the final month or so, the races lasted longer, money was less critical, and residents of nearly all states had a chance to cast a meaningful vote. Turnout nationally was twice the level that it is now.

In the presidential general election, Americans' opportunity to be part of the action is determined by the Electoral College. Although this feature of our constitutional system has always distorted the process to some extent, the fact that today's campaigns are based on money rather than volunteers has exaggerated the effect. Unlike volunteers, who work within the communities where they live, money can be targeted and withheld at will. During the 2000 general election campaign, there were no ad buys and no candidate visits in Kansas, a lopsidedly Republican state. In neighboring Missouri, which was a battleground state, there were 18 candidate visits and millions of dollars were spent on televised political advertising. "The process effectively takes half the country and says, 'you're just spectators,'" notes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication.

In 2000, residents of battleground states had a voting rate that was 3 percentage points higher than that of residents of other states. In fact, although the overall voting rate in 2000 was somewhat higher than it had been in 1996, turnout actually fell in nine states, all of which were safely in the Bush or Gore column. Residents of these and the other noncompetitive states also talked less about the campaign and paid less attention to election news than did the residents of battleground states.

Competition is the lifeblood of democratic elections and, when it dries up, participation suffers. There are many reasons why electoral participation has declined, but one of them surely is that citizens in too many places now have no real chance to influence the outcome.