As the final Election Day votes are being counted, national attention has focused on the Republicans’ near-sweep of close elections for Senate and governor. But elections for the other congressional branch deserve more scrutiny. Given that Republicans will only win about 52 percent of votes in House races, how are they ending up with 57 percent of seats? Why did Democrats concede control of the House months ago, even when congressional approval is so low?
The reason is bracing to believers in accountable and representative government. The House is shockingly skewed toward the Republican Party. It’s always hard to oust incumbents—some 96 percent just won re-election—but now it extends to control of the chamber. In 2012, Republicans won a lopsided majority of seats despite securing only 48 percent of the vote, about the same vote share as Democrats this year. To keep the House in 2014, Republican needed only 45 percent of votes. Putting it another way: control of the House comes from winning 218 races or more. The 218th biggest Republican margin was fully 14 percentage points.
Looking forward, it’s even worse for Democrats. FairVote’s Monopoly Politics projection model was, as usual, highly accurate in this election – of 368 projections made a year ago, only two were wrong. We’ve already released our projections for 2016 – that’s two years away, folks — and picked sure winners in 373 districts, leaving only 14 percent of the House even potentially in play. To win a majority of 218 House seats, we project that Democratic candidates would need to win ten million more votes than Republicans.
Imagine if analysts assumed that structural bias in the Electoral College would allow the Democrats to keep the White House in 2016 even if their candidate lost by 10 million votes. That distortion would stir an uproar—remember that when Al Gore lost in 2000, he had won the popular vote by 500,000 votes. Yet the partisan skew in House elections draws barely a yawn.
There’s every reason to care. Our founders designed the House to reflect the people, yet its leaders today are electorally unaccountable to voters in November. All Republican House leaders and committee chairs represent safely Republican districts won by Mitt Romney in 2012, and now an absolute majority of House seats will be held by Republicans in Romney-won districts. With little to fear from general election voters, Republicans representing such districts are incentivized to play to their party’s base to fend off primary challengers. The 113th Congress was one of the least productive in history, and it’s hard to see 114th Congress being much better.
Gerrymandering Is Only Part of the Story
Those who notice the partisan skew usually misrepresent its origins by placing the blame either on gerrymandering or campaign spending. Yes, gerrymandering is wrong, and Republicans leaders in swing states like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania drew brutally unfair congressional maps – ones where Republicans packed Democrats into relatively few districts and won most of the rest. But the skew’s origins run deeper. It’s a combination of a changing electorate and increasingly politically polarized voting.
Over the past 25 years, Democratic gains in the electorate have come from increases in the number of voters who are people of color and single women, but Democrats have lost support among white voters overall. The result is a startling urban/rural divide, with the Democratic base increasingly concentrated in cities – as evidenced by the fact Jimmy Carter in 1976 won 1,711 counties, nearly three times the 693 counties won by Obama in his comparably close win in 2012. This inefficient distribution of Democratic votes explains why even impartial redistricting will strongly favor Republicans. Indeed, the district skew was already in place by 1996, when Bill Clinton ran behind his national share of the popular vote in 55 percent of districts despite Democrats having drawn most of them – exactly the same share of districts where Obama trailed his national average in 2012. [ … ]
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It bears repeating… Voter disengagement will not make this better. It will only make it worse. Worse meaning we have the next election to fix it and, even then, while gerrymandering may be more readily fixable, it will take years to overturn Citizens United, and the oligarchs will surely not go down without a fight.
Curated from www.thenation.com