NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Elections Less Competitive?

December 3, 2001

Some political observers detect a loss of moderation in members of Congress and say that elections are less competitive now than they were, say, a century ago. They think they have found the reason in how states redistrict after a national census.

In all but a handful of states, politicians engaged in redrawing maps of congressional districts for the U.S. House of Representatives fight one another to create "safe" districts for their party. The result, observers say, is that the proportion of truly competitive races has declined over the years. A race is considered competitive when the winner has less than 55 percent of the total vote.

  • By that standard, 40.6 percent of races in 1900 were competitive -- when the House had only 357 seats.
  • In 2000, only 13.1 percent of races were competitive -- in a 435-seat House.
  • Analysts say that winners of close elections tend to be more moderate than candidates who are "shoo-ins" -- who have the luxury of being able to ignore the wishes of constituents who belong to the opposition party.
  • Eighteen states have already finished their redistricting work based on the 2000 census -- and challenges are clogging more than a dozen state judicial dockets.

Observers sat that Iowa and Washington have pioneered nonpartisan and less contentious ways to redistrict.

Iowa has handed the task to its highly respected Legislative Service Bureau -- which is not permitted to use party data in its deliberations. It also must not divide counties and is directed to maintain contiguity. The process makes it difficult to create safe districts.

Washington empowers a commission consisting of two Democrats and two Republicans, as well as a non-voting fifth member picked by the four others. Their plan must be favored by three of the voting members and passed by the legislature.

Source: Joanne Dann, "Safe But Sorry," Washington Post, December 2, 2001.


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