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

History Q & A

Mr. Patterson is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The article is derived from his recently published book, The Vanishing Voter (Knopf, 2002).

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.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Darryl E Hamlin - 11/1/2004

There haven't been any beyond the reassignment of representatives by state after the 2000 census, if Congress even did those....

However, I don't believe that using the national popular vote would be a good idea either. The electoral college helps prevent mob rule.

Joan Crow-Epps - 9/27/2004

I live in an area of Alaska where there are two small towns within miles of each other, a Borough government that encloses both, and a large school district. I have talked to many local people with strong opinions about issues but who are not interested in serving in a public office. Why? Many, many people have told me that it is because they do not want to deal with those members of the public who are ideologues and fanatics.

The school board members must deal with those who want to hijack the curriculum to promote their religion, stamp out mention of evolution, or who are obsessed with environmentalism, banning spanking, or promoting/banning sex education. The people on the City and Borough Assemblies must deal with right to bear arms, 'under God' in the pledge, antiabortion, anti-nuke, Trilateral Commission, and UN black helicopter obsessions, all subjects which have nothing to do with the local issues that are actually dealt with in their meetings.

I have been in attendance at many, many Department of Environmental Conservation hearings and Enviromental Protection Agency Hearings and these same people show up there. Quite frankly, the rude, loud, vulgar, angry approaching violent, out of control demeanor of these people is frightening. It is uncomfortable being at meetings where you have to worry about whether people are armed and fields of fire.

Campaigns even for local offices have descended to exposing your entire personal life, and that of your family, for the public to paw through, and having the most negative conclusions drawn from every facet of your history. The average person is not going to voluntarily put themselves or their families in a position to be personally attacked, have their character assassinated, or even worry about their physical safety because they cannot satisfy people who operate on the basis of if you're not with me, you're against me, and if you're against me then you're evil, and everything I do is therefore your fault, so anything is justified.

I do not know if this is typical of other areas or not, but this might explain some of the lack of participation at the local levels.

Tristan - 10/23/2003

Hello, my name is TRistan, i am a student.
i am doing a research paper assigned to me by my NSL Government techer on changes to the Electoral College system after the year 2000 election, however i have not been able to find a single source so far. in fact, i have found a few sites and articles that outright say that there hass been no changes at at after 2000!
please help by saying any information you have, preferably a website that has the info im looking for, i.e. changes to the Electoral College after the year 2000 election.
thank you very much.

George Kenney - 12/15/2002

Back when the republic was founded, there were approximately 80,000 residents in each House congressional district. The ratio of residents to eligible voters would have been lower than today, obviously, due to gender, race, and property restrictions. Following the founding, the size of the House was increased regularly following the Constitutionally mandated census every ten years. (Not sure whether the House voted on an increase after every single census). But after increases in 1911, following the 1910 census, the House didn't want to vote on increases in 1921 following temporary population shifts during WWI. Then in 1931 the House didn't want to act on shifts due to the Great Depression. In 1941 the House didn't want to make permanent shifts due to WWII. By 1951 members had realized they had a good thing going, and talk of ever again increasing the House's numbers rapidly faded away.

But today the US has a much larger average congressional district size, at about 700,000, than most other modern industrial states' equivalents. By way of comparison, each MP in the UK House of Commons represents slightly under 90,000 UK citizens.

The fact that US congressional districts are so large makes it nearly impossible for any ordinary person to run for office. Only people with access to large campaign funding sources have any serious hope of election -- but by their nature big money influences cannot be representative of the district.

It's a great pity: America has, in large part, lost both representation and representative democracy due to our collective forgetfulness about the original nature of the House.

Oscar Chamberlain - 12/12/2002

There is an exception to Patterson's point that citizens having no real chance to influence an outcome decreases participation, and it is worth considering. That exception is local elections, particularly in small and mid-size communities.

I live in a city of 8000 in a rural part of Wisconsin. (How rural? My city is easily the largest in the county.)

Participation in local elections (and government) here is little if any better than the national numbers. The attitude toward local government here is similar to what Patterson describes nationally. It's aloof, tied to special interest, and you can't do a thing to influence it.

Yet anyone who wants to can literally go and talk to a city council rep directly. (There's a time before every other meeting in which some council members are always present to talk individually to people). Or you can look one up in the phone book.

If ten people show up for a single issue there's a great chance that the Council will roll over in shock and do what they want. Anyone who feels like organizing a campaign has a really good chance for getting elected.

Of course that is largely because so few people run.

In short, its aloof and tied to special interests, not because people can't do a thing to influence it but because they rarely try and almost never try consistantly.

To be fair part of this may be the extreme exaustion created by the 24/7 lives many of us lead (a factor that I think Patterson needs to consider nationally). But it is not simply that; and I am not quite sure what else it is.