by Stacey Selleck
Now that the 2018 midterms are upon us, I wanted to do a little analysis of election results. Oftentimes, supporters tell us, “We have term limits. They’re called elections.” But are elections and term limits really the same thing? You hear the term “incumbent advantage” but what does that really mean?
The 2016 U.S. House election was good year for incumbents. But then again, all elections years are good for incumbents. According to Sarah John’s article on fairvote.org, “Why 2016 was a Stronger Year for Incumbents,” only 12 of 435 seats (3%) changed hands. And, just 8 of 387 incumbents contesting the general election were defeated. That amounts to an incumbency re-election rate of 98%. In other words, just 2% of the incumbents will lose.
Incumbents generally win by a margin of 70-30% in a district that favors their political affiliation meaning they don’t just emerge victorious, they crush any competition… that is if they even have any.
This week, the New York Times published an article entitled “These 20 Representatives Have Not Had a Primary Challenger for at Least a Decade” naming twenty House members who haven’t really faced any opposition, some for almost 30 years!
In U.S. House elections, nearly all incumbents are easily re-elected. Many districts are considered “safe,” which means, regardless of the individual candidate, the district is handed to the political party in power. No doubt gerrymandering is at play where the party in power may have a say in drawing district lines that look like coiling serpents (how apropos) — they follow demographic voting patterns rather than more natural boundaries – to the advantage of the party in control.
But it is not only district partisanship that provides safety for incumbents. Incumbency itself is an electoral advantage. Incumbents typically have:
- greater name recognition
- better campaign fundraising ability (take that as lobbyist contributions and political party war chests)
- more press coverage, and
- “franked mail” privileges (meaning they may send unlimited promotional mailings out using taxpayer dollars instead of campaign funds).
- they also have more experienced campaign operations and
- the ability to bring home political favors for their district.
And this list is by no means exhaustive.
Without question, term limits make elections fairer. Term limits cause open seat elections that encourage quality candidates to run for office. Take a look at your primary ballots and notice that seats with incumbents generally have no competition (meaning the office holder really has no election since he or she runs unopposed and the voter has no choice other than the incumbent).
At the state level, Ballotpedia reports “Nearly one-third of state legislative seats lack major party competition.” Their Annual State Legislative Competitiveness Report claims that 2,017 of 6,073 seats (33.2%) lack major party competition, meaning that no candidates from one of the major parties filed for those seats, guaranteeing the office to the other major party.
Also notice that races with open seats (because a candidate was either term limited or decided to run for another open seat for higher office) have many, many, more candidate choices. Everyone knows you’d be crazy to run against an incumbent because you’ll have about a 2% chance of victory.
One of the states with the strictest term limits is Michigan. It also happens to be the only state holding legislative elections this year without any uncontested seats. Every seat has a challenger. While the state with the most uncontested seats is Massachusetts, where only 28% of the general election contests feature both a Democrat and a Republican (according to Ballotpedia). Guess what? Massachusetts does not have term limits. What did you say about term limits taking away choice? Term limits may take away a choice, but it’s a choice of ONE not a choice of MANY.
As you can see, term limits create fairer elections, increase both voter and candidate participation AND enhance representation because legislators more accurately reflect the attitudes of their constituents…This is a result of opening up races regularly to citizen legislators living among the community making it tougher for politicians to distance themselves as part of an elite ruling class.
Do you think your representative is the only person in your community who can do the job?
Elections are not term limits.