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faits accomplis

Is “Democracy on the Ballot”? It Depends Where You Live.

President Biden called on voters to reject election deniers next week. But not everyone has that power because our elections are getting less competitive.

Women's March outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Demonstrators at the Women’s March outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on October 8

It’s now less than a week until the first results from this year’s midterm elections are reported. It is not the most important election of anyone’s lifetime—if you are old enough to vote, then that title goes to either 2000 or 2016—but 2022 is not far behind. Some Democrats, including President Biden this week, have warned that American democracy is quite literally on the ballot this year.

Recent polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our democracy is at risk, that our democracy is under threat. They too see that democracy is on the ballot this year, and they’re deeply concerned about it,” Biden said in a major speech on Wednesday night, later adding, “As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America—for governor, Congress, attorney general, secretary of state—who won’t commit, they will not commit to accepting the results of the elections that they’re running in. This is the path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful. And it’s un-American.”

Biden and others are not wrong that the republic is in peril. A growing number of Republican election deniers seek to claim key secretary of state offices ahead of the 2024 presidential race, raising the risk of electoral malfeasance to restore former President Donald Trump to the White House in two years. State legislatures and governor’s mansions may go to people with little interest in basic democratic principles. “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor,” Tim Michels, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, reportedly told his supporters at a recent event.

It would still not be entirely accurate to say that democracy is on the ballot everywhere next week. That may certainly be true if you live in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, or Pennsylvania. It is particularly true if you have a chance to vote against one of the dozens of state and local officials across the country running on this platform. But thanks to gerrymandering and other demographic factors, only a fraction of House elections are actually competitive this year. Senate races don’t have a gerrymandering problem, of course, but only a third of the seats are up for grabs in any given election. Thus, fewer Americans than it seems will actually have the power to halt this trend when their votes are counted next week. Calls to defend democracy are often falling on voters who can’t do much about it.

By some metrics, the 2022 midterms don’t necessarily reflect poorly on the health of American democracy. The New York Times election analyst Nate Cohn noted last week that Democrats still stand a modest chance of keeping control of the House next week. He contrasted this possibility with fears that gerrymandering would give Republicans an insurmountable edge in House races. “By some measures, this is the fairest House map of the last 40 years,” Cohn argued, citing as evidence the gap between the average House district’s voting results and the vote share received by each party’s most recent presidential candidate.

Just because the overall House map is competitive this year, however, does not mean that House elections themselves are competitive. Nor does it mean that gerrymandering didn’t have an effect on electoral outcomes. In August, the Brennan Center for Justice released an analysis of redistricting results after the 2020 census. It found that there were now only about 60 House seats that Biden or Trump won by less than eight percentage points, with about 30 or so for each candidate.

“All told, there are now fewer competitive districts than at any point in the last 52 years,” the Brennan Center’s analysts wrote. “If the good news is that both parties emerged with reasonable opportunities in coming years to win control of a closely divided House, the bad news is that they will fight that battle on the narrowest of terrains under maps artificially engineered to reduce competition.” Though the overall national map is still competitive, in the sense that either party could win control of the House, only a small subset of House members will actually be elected in competitive races.

The Brennan Center pointed to Texas as a particularly acute example of the problem. The state’s rapid population growth over the last decade made its post-2010 approach to redistricting hazardous in recent years, since it relied on using presumably Republican votes in suburban areas to offset presumably Democratic votes in urban areas. That strategy went awry when Trump alienated suburban moderates in 2018 and 2020. The post-2020 map curbs this risk by shoring up Republican seats and forsaking potential gains by cracking apart Democratic ones.

“Whereas before redistricting, 12 of the state’s then 36 districts had been competitive, under new maps, only 3 of 38 districts are—and two of them just barely,” the Brennan Center concluded. (Texas gained two seats after the 2020 census.) “Moreover, virtually all Republican districts in Texas are not only safe, but ultra-safe. In all, a remarkable 88 percent of Republican districts in Texas are now ones that Donald Trump won by 15 or more percentage points—significant insurance against the demographic change and suburban political shifts that bedeviled Republicans last decade in Texas.”

Other analysts have found a similar dearth of competitive House races. Cook Political Report currently lists all but 88 House races as solidly Democratic or solidly Republican. Of those 88 races, it describes just 35 of them as toss-ups, meaning that no side has a clear statistical edge over the other. There’s an element of guesswork here: A systemic polling error in favor of either party could result in a significant gap between those predictions and the results next week. And while 88 seats might seem like a lot, it only amounts to about one-fifth of the House of Representatives as a whole.

A bit of rough math shows the depth of the problem. After the 2020 census, each House seat represents about 790,000 people. Applying that to the Brennan Center’s estimate of competitive seats gives us about 200 million Americans whose House races are already effectively decided for them. In Wisconsin, where Michels promised that Republicans would never lose another election if he won, only one of the state’s seven congressional seats is remotely competitive, according to a Cook Political Report analysis. The other six favor one party’s candidate by double digits. Wisconsin’s state legislature is also so thoroughly gerrymandered that Republicans can win a near-supermajority of seats with only a bare majority of overall votes.

There are some caveats here. A lack of competitiveness doesn’t inherently mean that an election is unfair. Sometimes the electorate just prefers one candidate or one party to another. Some of this can also be traced to partisan self-sorting, with Democratic voters more likely to live in major cities and Republican voters more likely to live in suburban and rural areas. Not only does that make gerrymandering easier in states like Wisconsin, but it can also lead to a natural gerrymander of sorts even without anyone actively trying to bring one about.

At the same time, Republicans and some Democrats have gone to great lengths through gerrymandering to ensure that voters don’t face a real choice when deciding whom to elect to congressional and state legislative races. As I’ve noted elsewhere, this dynamic shifts the real power to party primaries for those seats, which opens doors for more extreme candidates than might otherwise be viable in competitive races. Biden is right to raise the alarm about how extremist and election-denying candidates in next week’s midterm elections pose a danger to American democracy. But due to the dearth of democratic and electoral reforms in recent years, many Americans can’t do much to stop them.