How people elect parliaments
The United States House of Representatives is the first institution described in detail in the text of the US Constitution, but it normally comes a distant third behind the presidency and the Senate in terms of electoral drama.
The House consists of 435 seats, all elected in single-member electoral districts.
Unique among the world’s national parliaments, the chamber is fully re-elected every two years, creating a near-constant climate of incumbents fearing primary challenges, constantly fundraising and ceaselessly campaigning.
House of Representatives elections are held as part of the US national election day – November 8 this year.
The Republican party currently holds a solid advantage with 247 seats to the Democratic party’s 188; a majority is 218 seats.
Few analysts foresee the Democratic party can pick up the 30 seats it would need to take control from their opponents, but the general consensus is that they will make gains this year.
Every fourth year, including 2016, elections for the House coincide with a US presidential election. Voter turnouts in these years range between 55% and 65% in recent decades.
In the ‘mid-term’ election years, turnout is much lower. The 2014 elections saw the lowest rate of voter participation – just 35% – since women were uniformly added to the American electoral rolls in the 1920s.
The 435 members sitting in the current House of Representatives were elected two years ago by the votes of just 23% of registered voters – one of the weakest results in the democratic world.
House elections are won using the plurality rule. The candidate with the most votes wins, even if they are well short of 50% support in the electorate. (The state of Maine may be on the verge of passing a ballot initiative to change that situation to one of preferential voting.)
In the early days of the republic some states elected their representatives ‘at-large’ using the block vote method, which would tend to mean that candidates of the same party would win all the state’s seats.
For over a century and a half virtually all the seats in the House have been won by candidates from the Democratic and Republican parties, with a rare smattering of independent members.
A major problem with the House in modern times is that so many of the seats are held with near-certain levels of safety by one of the two major political parties.
Analysts generally agree that at most around 55 of the 435 seats have any serious chance of changing hands at this week’s election.
A map from Real Clear Politics, highlighting that only a small minority of the congressional districts are seriously contestable at the coming election
Real Clear Politics currently (as at November 5) rates 171 House districts as entirely safe for the Democratic party, and 191 as safely Republican. Of the 73 that is rates as at all contestable to any degree, only 21 are rated as genuine ‘toss-ups’, and a mere 7 seats are currently predicted to be about to change hands.
The other two analysts reach very similar conclusions.
Large areas across the middle of America, including several whole states, have not a single district regarded as a real contest.
For example in the state of North Carolina analysts agree that there is no foreseeable vote result that will do otherwise than elect the ten Republicans and three Democrats candidates nominated in their 13 respective safe state districts – even if the majority of the state’s voters support Democratic candidates.
Why are so many House seats so safe from electoral challenge?
One reason is that the American electorate has become very polarised in its demographic distribution; voters in most urban or regional areas are simply forming up into localised majorities of partisan opinion between the two great political parties.
A second reason is that this demographic distribution can be easily exploited through crafty drawing of the district boundaries by gerrymandering.
Unlike other large democracies such as Australia, Canada and recently the United Kingdom, there is no independent authority charged with drawing the district boundaries. The resulting arrangements, mostly set by state politicians, are deliberately wrought to create advantages for the political party in control in each state.
A third reason – well argued by Alan Abramowitz, a columnist at the Crystal Ball website – is that incumbency brings with it a combination of powerful advantages in terms of fundraising, donations and the ability to deliver electorate outcomes. Abramowitz concludes that incumbency factors are actually strong enough to provide an almost complete alternative explanation to the gerrymandering thesis.
Of the mere seven seats forecast by Real Clear Politics to change hands next week, five are ‘open’ seats, where the incumbent is no longer in the contest.
So while the presidency and control of the Senate appear to be dramatically in play, it will take a major flood of votes towards the Democratic party to see control of the US House change.
And it will take much more than that – major reforms, no less, to the House electoral system, as well as a much higher turnout in future mid-term elections – to make the House successfully representative of America’s people.