Every ten years, congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the nation’s population shifts, and every ten years, the number of U.S. House seats that could be reasonably won by either party continue to shrink.
Kelly Burton, president of the left-leaning National Democratic Redistricting Committee, says it might not be great for democracy.
“It increases the polarization. It decreases the willingness and likelihood of two sides coming together to solve problems and skews the incentive structure for our elected officials much more toward the extremes then toward the middle,” she told NPR.
While not all 2022 congressional district maps are finalized, one outcome is not in dispute: only roughly 30 of 435 U.S. House seats will be considered traditional “swing seats” on the ballot this November. Those are congressional districts that were won within 5% by Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Districts that competitive tend to be represented by lawmakers who have the most incentives to be bipartisan.
But like-minded Americans are living more clustered together than ever before, and partisans take advantage of that reality to more easily draw legislative maps with safe Democratic and Republican seats, according to non-partisan election analyst Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report.
“These two things feed off of each other and compound to absolutely eviscerate the number of swing seats,” Wasserman told NPR.
The number of swing seats has dropped precipitously over the last 20 years. According to Cook data, there were 124 such seats after the 2002 redistricting process, and only 99 seats after the 2012 redistricting.
With a growing baseline of safe Republican and Democratic seats, both parties find it hard to command a sustainable House majority. Since the 1994 GOP wave broke a four-decade run of Democratic House control, the chamber has flipped three times (2006, 2010, 2018) and is poised to flip again in November, to Republicans.
A smaller number of competitive seats “means that there are a lot fewer natural and easy opportunities for us to go win,” said Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is the top House GOP super PAC. It is forcing Republicans to try to compete in seats with less “swing.”
“The political environment is so good that we are able to extend much deeper into Democrat-held territory than we ever were before, and we believe that we’re going to be able to make significant gains in traditional Democrat areas,” said Conston, noting that Republicans are fielding candidates in districts Biden carried by as much as 15%.
But with a less competitive House overall, even a banner year for Republicans would likely translate to a 25 to 30 seat gain and result in a narrow — and fragile — majority.
With fewer swing seats, the House is more vulnerable to whiplash between the two parties for control, says Stanford University Professor Morris Fiorina.
“Now the parties are so evenly matched that even though there’s very few marginal districts, the Congress could shift even with a much smaller change in seats than it could a generation ago,” he told NPR.
The risk, Fiorina says, is that both parties tend to misread the message from voters in these elections because of how tiny vote shifts can tilt control of the whole chamber.
“Each new majority says, ‘OK, now we have a mandate.’ They don’t have a mandate. The mandate was, ‘We like you slightly better than the other people,’” Fiorina said.
Another likely outcome: an even more ideologically divided Congress.
“You have a system where all of the competition for any given seat is forced into the primaries, where only a tiny fraction of voters even participate,” said Joshua Graham Lynn of Represent.us, a non-profit that advocates for democracy reforms.
Burton says it’s not all bad news.
“Even though the total number of competitive seats is smaller, there are enough seats within that competitive bucket that the House will be competitive for the decade, and I think that that is good for democracy,” she said, “I think you want the outcome of the elections to reflect the will of the voters and you want to see the people in power be determined by the voters themselves and not predetermined by the maps.”
Swing seats also evolve. A number of districts that were thought of as safe in 2011 were considered competitive 10 years later, Wasserman said, adding he suspects we’ll see the same thing in coming years.
“Keep in mind that over the course of a decade, things change,” he said.