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Elections are a crucial element of representative democracy. They are the direct link between citizens and their representatives in government: if the public approves of their elected officials’ actions, they continue to vote them back into office; if the public doesn’t like how things are going in the government, they vote for other candidates with different ideas. The electorate has to have this choice between candidates in order to effectively express their preferences. However, if the incumbent or incumbent party seems certain to win, a vote for a new candidate would be of little value: the election is not competitive; therefore, the public is hindered from voting into office a candidate that represents their true interests. It is therefore essential to examine the true meaning of what makes an election competitive and to determine whether American elections of various types adhere to this requirement.
The literature competitiveness in elections is extensive, but all definitions more or less come down to the question of whether or not someone other than the winner might have won (had circumstances been different, had the opposition campaigned more effectively, had the public been more welcoming to the opposition’s ideas, etc.). A very minimalistic definition of a competitive election is given by Hyde and Marinov (2012) in the form of three criteria: “opposition is allowed, multiple parties are legal, and more than one candidate competes” (p. 192). Five requirements for determining if an election was competitive are given by Janowitz and Marvin (1955-1956): high levels of participation, political self-confidence and self-interest among the citizenry, effective public deliberation, a media not monopolized by one particular side, and campaigns operating mostly independently of the mass media (pp. 384-393). These criteria are meant to measure the degree to which the election represented a “process of consent” rather than a “process of manipulation”. Buchler (2007) defines competitive elections as those in which the candidates have about an equal chance of winning, or when their vote shares are about the same–so, the more the two-party vote for the winning candidate approaches 50%, the more competitive the election is. In their study on the effects of competition on legislator performance, Koninsky and Ueda (2011) define a competitive election as one in which the winner earned 90% or more of the two-party vote (p. 201), whereas Niemi et al. (2006) define competitive elections as those in which the winner received at least 60% of the two-party vote (cited in Koninsky and Ueda, p. 201).
Such strictly defined, outcome-based requirements for electoral competitiveness have been criticized for being more or less arbitrary (Buchler, p. 336); however, for the purpose of this paper, such definitions are the most practical choice. The minimalistic definition of Hyde and Marinov is in fact too minimalistic for an examination of electoral competitiveness in America, where an open and democratic political process is an integral aspect of the Constitution itself. Janowitz and Marvin’s definition will be excluded for practical purposes because while the criteria to allow for analysis of electoral competitiveness pre-election, and therefore do not count as uncompetitive elections in which the opposition simply wasn’t strong enough, this method is much more suited to an in-depth study of a single election rather than a comparison between multiple election years and types because of the normative questions involved (the researchers in question used this method to examine the 1952 presidential election). While strictly statistical, outcome-based definitions of competitiveness are perhaps arbitrarily defined, they are simple and useful in studying electoral competitiveness over long periods. To avoid restraining myself to one statistic, I consider both the 60% requirement proposed by Niemi et al. and the 90% requirement used by Koninsky and Ueda.
In order to study competition in presidential elections, I have compiled both the popular vote and Electoral College vote for the presidential elections since 1980. I only included data from the two candidates who received the most votes. I then calculated the percentage of the two-party vote (popular and Electoral College) received by each candidate. The percentage of the two-party popular vote received by any given winner of the presidency never exceeded 60%, and can, therefore, be considered competitive by both the 60% and 90% requirements. However, the results of the two-party Electoral College vote were not always so close. In fact, in seven out of the ten presidential elections held in the past 37 years, the percent of the two-party vote in the Electoral College received by the winning candidate exceeded 60%, and in two of these elections, this percentage exceeded 90%. Therefore, by our most strict definition of a competitive election, most presidential elections in the past thirty-seven years have not been competitive if we use the data provided by the Electoral College votes. This could suggest that the structure of America’s presidential elections (i.e., indirect vote via the Electoral College) compromises the competitiveness of our elections, as all the presidential elections examined were found to be competitive in the popular vote, but the Electoral College vote–which is, in fact, the deciding factor in who will become President–was found to be uncompetitive in most cases. It is clear that the Electoral College does extrapolate the margin of victory of the winner, most clearly evidenced by the elections of 1980 and 1984, when Reagan was elected with a two-party popular vote of 55% and 59%, respectively, but by a 91% and 98% two-party vote in the Electoral College (Woolley and Gerhard 2017).
I have employed the same method used for presidential elections to measure competitiveness in statewide elections in Missouri (Governor and United States Senator elections) and the district-based Missouri United States Representative elections (except that the Electoral College factor was not applicable). I have used the past five elections for each type of election; therefore I have gone back to 2000 for the Governor election data, to 2004 for the U.S. Senator data, and to 2008 for the U.S. Representative data. The elections for Missouri governors and U.S. Senators all fall within the 60% requirement off competitiveness. However, the U.S. House elections rarely satisfy this requirement (one out of eight districts in 2014, three out of nine districts in 2010, and one out of nine districts in 2008 had a two-party vote of less than 60% for the winner). None of the elections ever had a two-party vote that exceeded 90%, so these elections are competitive by Koninsky and Ueda’s requirement (Ashcroft 2017, “Missouri Election Results” and “Previous Elections”). However, the disparity is obvious: while U.S. Representative elections are still competitive by the 90% test, they are generally nowhere near as competitive as state Governor, U.S. Senator, or presidential elections. This most likely arises as a result of gerrymandering, defined by Lowi et al. (2017) as the practice of drawing district maps that favor one party or the other based on the partisan makeup of different regions (p. 198). This practice reduces the competitiveness of districts so that the party that drew the map will have certain victory in most districts while allowing their opponents to win in a handful of districts where their party has the clear majority. For statewide and nationwide elections, this is not an option, but for district-based elections, gerrymandering is common practice.
In response to a lack of competition in district-based elections, many propose intentionally drawing electoral districts to narrow the margin of victory and encourage more robust competition. There are many reasons to advocate for increased competition. As previously mentioned, the electorate cannot express its true preferences if election results are more or less determined in advance. According to Lowi et al., competition among politicians incentivizes them to reveal more information about themselves and about the other candidates, which in turn makes citizens more apt to pick the candidates that best represent their interests (p. 428). The threat of competition incentivizes elected officials to steer clear of corrupt practices and to remain responsive to their constituency to ensure re-election (Brunell and Clarke 2012, p. 124). This same threat also means that officials elected in competitive elections are more active lawmakers (Koninsky and Ueda, p. 199). And according to Huckfeldt et al. (2007), while electoral competitiveness does not seem to produce any direct effect on turnout, it still has an indirect effect in that parties and candidates put more campaign effort into competitive elections, which in turn encourages higher turnout (p. 809).
Indeed, the word “competition” often has a very positive connotation in American culture. This is natural, as it is the founding block of the free market system which our country has embraced possibly more than any other country. It may, therefore, come as a surprise that not all scholars advocate competition in the electoral sphere. A fairly intuitive, though the easily disregarded aspect of competition in elections is that as the margin of victory decreases, the number of people who voted for losing candidates increases. Brunell and Clarke argue that these people are more dissatisfied with the outcome of the election and feel that their interests are not being represented in government (p. 125). A study conducted by Bowler and Donovan (2011) suggests that increased competition leads to dissatisfaction in the electorate because people dislike being exposed to politics (p. 159). Janowitz and Marvin argue that high levels of competition divide the electorate and disintegrate more moderate, compromise-oriented groups (p. 400). It would seem that competitive elections, while allowing the public to hold elected officials accountable to their constituents, also lead to less happy constituents in general. Buchler goes on to point out that in order to draw competitive districts, the actual partisan makeup of the electorate must be disregarded, and a smaller margin of victory increases the chances of an error in the declared winner (pp. 333, 336). So when we draw districts to be more competitive, we may end up with representatives who do not actually represent the people to any significant degree.
While the arguments for and against electoral competition seem valid, it is important to distinguish which definition of “competitive” we are actually working with. For example, while the 60% requirement proposed by Niemi et al. judges that nearly all U.S. House elections in Missouri were non-competitive, the more minimalistic model proposed by Hyde and Marinov would classify all of the elections studied in this paper as competitive simply because they were truly democratic elections. At the same time, the broadest definition of a competitive election used, the 90% definition proposed by Koninsky and Ueda, would define nearly all of the elections studied as competitive. I doubt that those who wish for less electoral competition because of its divisive effect on the electorate would suggest that the two-party vote for the winning candidate must exceed 90% every time, just to keep people happy. The obvious gerrymandering that takes place in redistricting maps is not to be taken lightly, but the solution is not necessarily an effort to draw more competitive districts. As Buchler (2005, cited in Buchler 2007) argues, an unbiased map is the best way to ensure true representation of the citizens of a given region, even if the map is, in fact, uncompetitive (p. 333). Perhaps this is what we should really be working towards– the true ideological representation–rather than the potentially random results that come from toss-up districts.