If we said we could predict the winners in three-quarters of the horse races at Suffolk Downs, you’d say the fix is in. But when it comes to the 435 races for the U.S. House on November 5, the fix really IS in.
Even before the polls open on Election Day, we can tell you the winners in 76 percent of the races. For all intents and purposes, most House races have been over for months. No wonder that barely a third of adults will bother voting this year — the lowest national election turnout in the world among long-time democracies. Most Americans simply have given up on stale, noncompetitive congressional elections. Turnout in primaries this year was a mere 17% of adults.
So here are our predictions for this year’s House races, taken from our new report called “Monopoly Politics”: Democrats will win 159 seats in the House, 104 by lopsided landslides and 41 by a comfortable spread of 10 points or more. The Republicans will win 173 seats, 91 by landslides and 59 by a comfortable 10-point spread. A total of 332 seats are locked up for one party or the other, and most of the remaining districts won’t be competitive either due to weak challengers. More than 95% of incumbents will again cruise to victory, usually by huge margins.
We have made predictions for previous House elections, and those predictions were 99.8% accurate. What is perhaps most interesting is that we make our predictions so confidently without knowing anything about inequities in campaign financing between the candidates, or even knowing much about who the candidates are.
We can do this because of a simple fact: most districts tilt strongly toward one major party or the other, courtesy of the redistricting process. That’s when legislative district lines are redrawn by the dominant political party and manipulated to favor those already in power. Think of it as “insider trading,” just like Enron or Martha Stewart – except this is political insider trading.
What’s the end result? Most voters have become bunkered down in safe, one-party districts where their only viable choice is to ratify the candidate — usually the incumbent — of the party that dominates their district. If you are a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, a Republican in a solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party, you don’t have a chance of electing your candidate, no matter how much money your candidate spends. While we think of ours as a two-party system, in fact, most voters’ frame of reference for legislative races is that of a one-party system.
This fact directly undercuts voter enthusiasm and public debate about issues. It also undercuts campaign finance reform. Compared to the lopsided nature of most House districts, campaign finance inequities are of secondary importance in determining who wins and loses most legislative elections in November (big money has its greatest impact in primary races).
In fact, the winners as well as the margins of victory more closely correlate to whether the district has been gerrymandered to favor the Democrats or the Republicans than to inequalities in campaign finance. This reality of our political landscape allows party bosses to focus all their campaign resources on a handful of close races that will determine which side wins control over the U.S. House of Representatives.
The sad fact is that for most voters who care about which party controls the House, it will be more effective for them to donate money to a candidate in a competitive race halfway across the nation than vote in their own districts. It’s little wonder that so many voters are losing interest. Our votes count for too little, whether cast on the latest touchscreen machines or antiquated punchcards. And this contributes to an alarming level of apathy and resignation.
Monopoly politics is no way to run a democracy. To improve voter choice, we should start by following Iowa and Arizona’s example, and take the redistricting process out of incumbents’ hands and give it to independent nonpartisan commissions with a mandate to make our legislative races more competitive.
But we won’t return choice and empowerment to voters unless we join most other modern democracies in transforming our “winner take all” elections. We should break up the single-seat districts and try multi-seat districts elected by a system of proportional representation. That will produce more competitive elections, and more voters will have a fair chance to win representation.
In the meantime, place your bets, everyone. It’s easy money when the fix is in. And you don’t need to wait until Election Day, you can find out who your representative will be by visiting our predictions at www.fairvote.org.
[Steven Hill is senior analyst for the the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, 2002, www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is director of the Center, a national nonprofit organization. For more information, contact: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039 301-270-4616.]