Explaining Uncontested Seats in Congress and State Legislatures

Date01 May 2021
Published date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(3) 247 –258
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20960565
Contestation is central to effective democratic politics. At the
heart of representative democracy are elections that provide
voters with the opportunity to express their preferences about
the direction of government. To meet this essential standard,
elections must exist not only in theory; they must also be
contested so that voters actually get to make choices between
competing candidates. Indeed, Dahl’s (1971) classic depic-
tion of a “polyarchy” identified two essential dimensions of
democracy: the degree of participatory inclusion of the elec-
torate and the degree of contestation. The presence of uncon-
tested elections thus raises normative questions about
whether a democracy is functioning effectively.
We examine the prevalence of uncontested elections for
Congress and state legislatures as a measure of the health of
these representative bodies. Our longitudinal data analysis
reveals a striking inconsistency. Uncontested rates for elec-
tions to the House of Representatives are low and have been
declining over time. In contrast, uncontested rates for lower
houses of state legislatures are high and increasing. Although
seats in both kinds of institutions are less likely to be con-
tested in the South, regional differences do not explain the
divergent experiences at the federal and state level. We esti-
mate multivariate regression models of the uncontested seat
rate and find that several factors such as redistricting and the
simultaneous presence of presidential elections work simi-
larly at both levels of government. A key difference between
the opposing trends is the likelihood that a given election
will flip party control. The margin between the two parties’
seat shares in Congress has been relatively narrow and has
no apparent effect on how many districts are contested. In
contrast, state legislatures’ much larger margins make them
less likely to flip and discourage candidates from contesting
seats. Because states have tended to drift toward being reli-
ably “blue” or “red” in their state legislatures, candidates and
parties within even those politically lopsided states will view
congressional seats as more inviting targets. A key to more
contested elections is the presence of narrow legislative
majorities that keep chambers “flippable” and subsequently
motivate parties and candidates to run.
Understanding Contestation
Generally speaking, uncontested races are those where only
one candidate runs and thus faces no opponent.1 This effec-
tively makes the election a foregone conclusion about which
voters have no influence.2 In contrast, uncompetitive races
are those where the favored candidate appears to have an
advantage that makes it unlikely that her opponent will win.
Uncontested and uncompetitive elections are both nor-
matively and empirically important. However, we know
much less about the former than the latter. Indeed, studies
that seek to explain variation in competitiveness sometimes
even drop uncontested seats from the analysis together. This
approach may be problematic precisely because without
960565APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20960565American Politics ResearchBurden and Snyder
1University of Wisconsin-Madison, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Barry C. Burden, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1050 Bascom Mall,
110 North Hall, Madison, WI 53706, USA.
Email: bcburden@wisc.edu
Explaining Uncontested Seats
in Congress and State Legislatures
Barry C. Burden1 and Rochelle Snyder1
A fundamental requirement of democracy is the existence of contested elections. Our study documents and explains trends
in uncontested seats in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures over time. We uncover a striking inconsistency in the health
of elections: the frequency of uncontested seats in Congress has declined while the frequency of uncontested seats in
state legislatures has actually increased. To explore these divergent trends, we consider factors that are common to both
Congress and state legislatures such as the redistricting cycle but also variables that are unique to the state level. Our analysis
points to the relative “flippability” of Congress compared to many state legislatures as a factor behind diverging levels of
contestation. While many state legislatures have become bastions for dominant parties, congressional districts in those same
states are often nonetheless viewed as enticing targets because they contribute to control of the federal government.
uncontested elections, state legislative elections, professionalism

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