Only A Wave Election Will Win House For Democrats
Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
FairVote, the national democracy reform group, has dismal news for Democrats seeking to regain a House majority in 2018. Unless there is a turnout wave of voters disgusted with Republicans unlike anything seen in decades, they can forget it.
“For 2018, FairVote’s model makes high-confidence projections of the winners in 374 of 435 U.S. House races,” its Monopoly Politics 2018 report said. “Of these 374 projections, 208 races are safe for Republicans and 166 are safe for Democrats.”
The House of Representatives has 435 seats, with 218 needed for a majority. If all the current Democrats are re-elected, they need 24 additional seats for a House majority. However, FairVote’s study did not find enough competitive races.
“Of the 61 seats our high-confidence model did not project, 22 favor Republicans and another 21 are toss-up seats, and Republicans need only win 10 of these to maintain their majority,” they continued. “We project that Republicans are likely to maintain control of the House, unless Democrats have more than 55% of the national party preference.”
FairVote’s biennial assessment is a gloomy report on the anti-democratic nature of House elections. It posited that neither funding nor candidate qualities will sufficiently matter in 2018 for Democrats because of other structural hurdles. These include the non-competitive partisan landscape of most House districts, who those districts backed for president in 2016, how Republicans segregated voters by party when remapping congressional districts in 2011, and how most Democrats live in cities, unlike Republicans, who are more spread out across the country.
The likely result will be a disaster for democracy and civic participation, they said, especially in the 374 races where they make “high-confidence projections.”
“In these districts, the challengers will be powerless to affect the outcome, regardless of their funding, their qualities as candidates, or their ability to motivate supporters,” FairVote said. “Many voters in those districts will be alienated due to a predetermined outcome, and the incumbents will not be accountable to voters based on their performance. The electoral incentives for Members will be to move further to the ideological, more partisan extremes in the polarized electorates of primary elections, as that is the only election most of them have any risk of losing.”
FairVote has a near-perfect record of predicting electoral outcomes in recent House elections. Their analysis finds there are not enough competitive House races in 2018 for the Democrats to stage a comeback—unless voter turnout and disgust with the GOP reach levels not seen in many decades (which they don’t expect).
“Of the 701 high-confidence projections we made for 2014 and 2016 House races, 700 (99.9%) were correct,” FairVote said. “This level of accuracy is a testament to just how uncompetitive U.S. House elections are. It is instructive not only that we can accurately project results so early, but also that we do not need to take into account anything other than prior congressional and presidential election results. FairVote’s model does not need to factor in opinion polling, campaign spending, scandals, challenger quality, or the incumbent’s voting record to achieve such high levels of accuracy.”
FairVote said its confidence comes from the country’s increasing partisan divides.
“At the core of our model is the concept of partisanship, a measure of the underlying partisan preference of a given district,” they explained. “Safe districts, in which we are highly confident of the outcome, include 208 Republican districts. This means Republicans need to win only ten of the remaining 61 seats to maintain control of the House. In a year where the national party preference is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, Republican candidates are projected to win 244 districts (56%)—53 more than Democrats.”
The notion that House Republicans could win a 50-plus-seat majority in 2018 is galling—after voting repeatedly to strip health insurance from tens of thousands of voters in scores of congressional districts. But that’s because extreme redistricting, in which GOP-majority state legislatures segregated voters by party when drawing lines, created congressional districts where the reliable Republican turnout averaged 56 percent, and where the average Democratic turnout—in fewer districts—was upwards of 69 or 70 percent. (Those figures were cited in a 2017 Supreme Court ruling over North Carolina’s unconstitutionally race-based gerrymander.)
FairVote said that other recent federal court decisions finding extreme partisan gerrymandering benefited Republicans didn’t result in more balanced congressional delegations—because when GOP state legislatures went back to the drawing board, they simply adjusted the boundaries to further entrench their advantage.
“New court-ordered maps in Florida and Virginia, created to resolve illegal gerrymanders, actually reduced the number of competitive districts even further in the lead up to 2016,” they said. “There are now just 45 competitive districts in the United States House. In most of the remaining 390 U.S. House districts, the outcome of general elections is effectively predetermined. Supporters of the minority party, whether they make up 5% or 45% of the electorate, have little chance of winning representation.”
They explained that political geography—where each party’s voters tend to live—only reinforces the gains made by partisan gerrymandering.
“Today, there is one underlying geographical phenomenon that makes partisan skew toward the Republican Party inevitable under our current winner-take-all system: Democratic voters tend to be clustered in cities, while Republicans are more spread out across the suburbs and rural areas,” they said. “As a result, Democratic-leaning districts are more Democratic than Republican-leaning districts are Republican. In 2012 and 2014, the average partisanship of Republican-leaning districts was 61.5% Republican, while the average partisanship of Democratic-leaning districts was 65.0% Democratic. Because of this discrepancy, an equal number of votes will earn Republicans a greater number of seats, because more Democratic votes are ‘wasted’ running up large margins of victory in heavily Democratic districts.”
This sorting “effectively predetermines” the election outcomes, FairVote said.
“The tens of millions of voters that support the minority party in these districts have little chance of electing a representative that shares their views, and the power of gerrymandered districts and political geography ensure that one party will retain an arbitrary chamber majority in all but their most lopsided electoral defeats.”
The solution they propose—besides redistricting reform where citizen commissions, not elected officeholders, draw the lines—is to replace the winner-take-all system of elections with what’s known as ranked-choice voting. A handful of cities now do this, and Maine will start using this system for its statewide elections in 2018. Under the system, voters list their candidate preferences in order. If nobody wins on the first ballot, then the candidates with the fewest votes are removed and their voters’ second choice is added to the tally until someone emerges with a majority.
Ranked-choice voting more closely tracks local electorates’ preferences, FairVote said. But it is nowhere close to being considered on a national scale. The next big test case for it may be in Massachusetts, where there are efforts underway to place it on the ballot for 2018 or 2020.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).