Unopposed in House Elections

Looking into uncontested and partially contest House districts from the 2014 cycle.

districtsOne of the foundational elements of a democratic system is the connection between voters and office-holders (as illustrated by this simplified model from Taylor, Shugart, Lijphart, and Grofman 2014:10):image

A key aspect of this model is the assumption (which is fundamental to democratic theory) that accountability is maintained by electoral competition in which the voters can reward or punish office holders and political parties. This accountability loop is a means of communicating, albeit imperfectly, popular policy preference to those who sit in government and make said policy.  The exact nature and quality of this feedback loop varies across different democratic cases and is predicated on the nature of the institutions of democracy in those given cases.

One of the reasons I have often written on issues like competiveness and representativeness within American democracy is because those are issues that influence the quality of the feedback loop in question.  Along those lines, I noted the other day that the Alabama ballot in my portion of the state was marked by a large number of unopposed candidates (including, somewhat remarkably, for US Senate).  Along these lines I was curious as to how many seats in the US House races were uncontested.  So, I poked through Ballotpedia and CNN and constructed the following table.  I have identified two categories of contest:  1)  those where the seat was uncontested (including a handful that had write-in opposition), and 2) those where was no major party opposition.  It should be noted that third party/independent competition is at least nominal competition, but in the US system having no major party opposition is tantamount to a non-competitive district given the track record of third parties.  More importantly for my purposes here it means one of the two major parties decided that the seat was not worth even token participation.

(Note:  I did not include California, Louisiana, or Washington in this count because of the nature of their two-round systems which are not, by the way, primaries no matter what they are called).

The results:  32 members of the House had no competition (8.0%) and 28 had only non-major party opposition (6.4%) for a combined 14.4% of the districts being so lopsided that one of the two major parties did not even offer token competition.  While these are not overwhelming numbers, they are also not insignificant.  Some states are especially problematic (e.g., Massachusetts and Texas).


The table needs another two categories to get a full picture:  non-competitive seats with two major party candidates (the vast majority of all seats) and another with truly competitive elections (a handful of all seats).

Now, this is one election (and as I noted the other day, one should not judge an election in a vacuum).  However, without looking I am confident that this is not an atypical pattern.  While one cannot draw specific conclusions from this table, it does make for an interesting observation about a specific type of noncompetitive districts.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2014, Democracy, Democratic Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Ben says:

    The table needs another two categories to get a full picture: non-competitive seats with two major party candidates (the vast majority of all seats) and another with truly competitive elections (a handful of all seats).

    Then you need to define what “competitive” means. is 55-45 competitive? 60-40?

  2. @Ben: Of course.

  3. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    If I may suggest a few more elements (ain’t I generous to offer you more work?):

    1) A column showing how many total seats each state held.
    2) A breakdown of which parties took the uncontested seats.

    The first datum would indicate just how bad the problem is in each state. The second datum would differentiate the states where one party holds a total lock, vs. states where the parties have come to a modus vivendi and set up “safe” districts for each side.

    I think it’s a worthwhile little exercise.

  4. charles austin says:

    The biggest problem appears to be gerrymandering, and both parties try to make the worst of it.

  5. Just Me says:

    I don’t think gerrymandering has much to do with Massachusetts-or at least isn’t the main problem which is a very weak Republican Party.

    The democrats are the only viable party in the state and the GOP doesn’t bother in many races. Most of the GOP candidates know they are there to lose and the GOP doesn’t sink a lot of money into the races.

  6. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @charles austin: The biggest problem appears to be gerrymandering, and both parties try to make the worst of it.

    That was why I made my second suggestion. It would help identify where gerrymandering is a factor.

  7. @charles austin: @Jenos Idanian #13: it is more than just gerrymandering. It is endemic to single seat district system (and it further is exacerbate by the primary process).

  8. @Just Me: Except that Mass. Is not 100% Democratic as evidenced by various (and recent) statewide races. And yet, the method to elect the House produces not only all Dems, but a majority of districts without competition. This is a structural problem.

  9. Grewgills says:

    @charles austin:
    California has done a good job of fairly representing its population in federal elections. If Texas apportioned its districts in anything near as fair a manner the House would look a lot different, Hell Austin might even be represented by a Democrat.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    I have always thought it would be an interesting project for some graduate student to figure out how many people went to polls last week and did not vote in any competitive election. It seems like with big data these days, it would not be too hard to determine this. Using a logic tree, the student could eliminate states, congressional districts, and state districts that were competitive and just count up everything else.

    My guess is that a significant number of voters waste their time by going to polls to vote in races that are not competitive.

  11. @superdestroyer: Keep in mind that there are always multiple items on the ballot.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I know. That is why one would have to use some sort of logic tree. First throw out the states where a state wide elections (office or referendum) was competitive. Then throw out the Congressional districts in whatever states remain. Then drill down through the state senate, state house, and whatever local elections there were. Eventually there would be a list of precints where all of the offices and issues on the ballot were decided in non-competitive election.

    It would also give the graduate student a chance to see if someone already aggregates this data, how each state officially reports its elections results, and how every country/city reports its voting results.A good null thesis would be that less than X percentage (say 10%) of the population goes to the voting booth for no reason.

    I know it is the not the most cutting edge research but would interesting to see if the voting precints that no not have any competitive elections have anything in common.