Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Competitive U.S. House Races Rare

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Competitive U.S. House Races Rare

Article excerpt

Byline: Bruce Reed and Marc Dunkelman

Competition and democracy go hand in hand. After races that came down to the narrowest of margins in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, Americans are getting used to hard-fought, close presidential elections - and the 2008 campaign is the most electrifying in years.

Both Democratic candidates have won more primary votes than any previous nominee. Both have ushered new voters into the process, as has the sheer closeness of the campaign.

Real competition is still a rare commodity in the House of Representatives, which the framers designed to be hard-fought. For all the talk of thin majorities in both chambers of Congress, artfully designed districts protect most House members from the sword of Damocles.

During the 2002 election, when Republicans maintained control of the House, 91 percent of members defeated their opponents by 10 percentage points or more.

Four years later - in an election in which Democrats took control of both chambers - all but 60 of the 435 voting members of the House won by more than 10 points.

The relative comfort that most members of Congress enjoy - so stark in comparison to the half-percent and 21/2-percent margins in the past two presidential elections - diminishes the power voters can exert over the agenda.

When members can't lose, voters do - because it takes the pressure off Congress to get the job done.

Besides letting members off the hook for failing to do the people's business, noncompetitive districts also suppress voter participation.

Elections where the outcome is assumed from the start receive less media attention. Candidates do not feel as compelled to make their cases to the public. And voters aren't stupid: When the outcome is essentially predetermined, there's less reason to cast a ballot.

Indeed, the Democratic Leadership Council has found that - on average - 30,000 additional voters participate in congressional elections decided by less than 10 percentage points. That's equivalent to expanding the voting pool by one-sixth.

On average, 214,000 voters cast ballots in the 60 competitive races run in 2006. …

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