Texas' congressional elections near bottom in FairVote's Democracy Index

by Warren Hays, Lindsey Needham // Published June 1, 2012

Houston voters, May 29


A new FairVote report shows winner-take-all voting rules for U.S. House elections in Texas create largely uncompetitive races and elect officials who do not reflect the state's diverse population. For the 2010 U.S. House elections, Texas ranks 49th out of 50 states using FairVote's Democracy Index, which measures a combination of representation and competition factors.

This week's primaries represented the best chance for voters to affect their U.S. House representation prior to the November election. However, voters in most races did not have the chance to cast a meaningful ballot, as ten incumbents didn't face a primary challenger and all but one incumbent won by a landslide. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term Democratic incumbent running in District 16, was the only incumbent to lose in yesterday's primaries. Like Reyes, the delegation's longest-serving Member Ralph Hall was also targeted by an anti-incumbent PAC called The Campaign for Primary Accountability, but Hall won with 58% -- more than 37% ahead of his nearest challenger.

Texas' redistricting process has been messy, but intervention by the courts has allowed the state to hold primaries without too much delay. However, Texas' current map may well be interim -- the state is likely to redraw lines next year. The only Democratic incumbent directly affected was Rep. Lloyd Doggett. Rather than vie for votes in a more heavily-Republican district, Doggett District opted to run in a newly drawn Latino-majority district. Doggett won his Democratic primary handily -- with 71% of the vote, meaning two Latino-majority districts will likely be represented by non-Latino candidates.

If Texas' recent electoral trends indicate November's election results, most of these incumbent representatives will coast to another term in Congress without ever facing a legitimate challenger.

The only loser in this scenario appears to be Texas voters, who will not get the chance to participate in meaningful elections for the U.S. House.

Here are key facts about Texas' U.S. House elections from our report:

  • Why Texas ranks so low in the Democracy Index: Texas was nearly dead last in our Democray Index in 2010, when it was in the bottom five states in competitiveness of its elections and voter turnout. Only Oklahoma ranked lower.
  • Incumbents continue to win big: Of all Texas congressional elections since 2002, just ten races (6%) were decided by less than 10%. In 2010, 27 House seats (84%) were won by landslide margins of at least 20%.
  • Nearly four in five eligible voters didn't elect anyone: In 2010, less than 22% of eligible voters cast a ballot for a winning candidate and secured representation in the U.S. House. Since 1992, the highest amount of eligible voters winning representation is 35% -- still barely over a third.
  • Latinos under-represented: Latinos make up 38% of Texas' voting population, yet there are only six Latinos (19%) serving in the state's congressional delegation. Although the new redistricting plan increased the number of Latino-majority districts by two, both districts may well end up with non-Latino members - and that number could even decline with Reyes' defeat.
  • Men dominate Texas' congressional delegation: Currently, Texas has just three women in its congressional delegation. A dozen women won nominations in yesterday's primaries, and several more will compete in a July runoff. But women face an uphill challenge to pick up seats with male representatives having such an incumbency advantage in winner-take-all districts.

FairVote's report, Dubious Democracy, provides a comprehensive assessment of the level of competition and accuracy of representation in U.S. House elections in all 50 states from 1982 to 2010. You can read the section on Texas here and the full report here.

Some highlighted national facts concerning the 2010 elections:

  • Sky-high incumbency rate despite wave election. Over 86% of incumbents running kept their seats, a high rate given public dissatisfaction with Congress.
  • Landslide wins continue. The average margin of victory in 2010 was a whopping 33%, and 64.4% of U.S. House races were won by landslide margins of at least 20%. Only 81 races (18.6%) were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percentage points.
  • Apathy and lack of representation. Just one out of every four eligible voters cast a ballot for a winning candidate. In other words, nearly three in four eligible voters in 2010 did not vote for anyone who went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Dubious Democracy: 1982-2010
comprehensively catalogues just how noncompetitive U.S. House elections have been in states around the nation for nearly three decades. FairVote Executive Director Rob Richie said, "Although political campaigns and cable news constantly portray American elections as a horse race, the reality is that the majority of the time we have uncompetitive elections where the incumbent wins without having to make their case to voters."

Confronting meaningless and uncompetitive congressional elections in Texas and throughout the rest of the country is possible. FairVote proposes an alternative - a fair voting system in multi-seat districts - to facilitate fair representation and foster competitive elections.

You can find the fair voting plan for other states here.