HGov: Legislative Elections


Congress is a bicameral legislature made up of a House of Representatives of 435 members and a Senate of 100 members. Every 10 years a census is taken by the federal government to count the population to determine the number of each state’s congressional districts. Each state must then redraw its congressional boundaries to ensure that each district is equal in population. Congressional redistricting is done by each state legislature. Therefore, the political party in control of the state legislature controls how the districts are drawn. The legislature will gerrymander the district boundaries to give the majority party an advantage in future elections.

Elections for the House of Representatives occur every two years. Many House members have safe seats and are not seriously challenged for reelection. Elections for one-third of the Senate occur every two years with a senator term lasting six years. Every state is guaranteed two senators, elected on a staggered basis in statewide elections. Senate elections are generally more competitive, expensive, high profile, and generally draw candidates from other elected offices.

Once elected, many legislators stay in office as long as voters keep reelecting them. Lawmakers who run for office term after term stand a very good chance of being reelected. Representatives running for another term in the House have won reelection approximately 90 percent of the time. Around 80 percent of incumbent senators have won their reelection bids. Clearly incumbents have a number of advantages over their challengers.

Voters are familiar with incumbents. They see incumbents in news coverage looking authoritative and effective. Voters tend to trust them more than unfamiliar challengers.

Incumbents can use the benefits of their office to keep in touch with voters in their district.

Individuals and organizations give money in larger amounts to incumbents than to challengers.

Incumbents can point to federally funded projects, from roads and bridges to defense contracts they have won for their districts. Such projects are known as pork, because the money for them comes from the federal pork barrel or treasury. Legislators who secure large amounts of pork for their home districts are admired for bringing home the bacon. Challengers typically lack such bragging rights.

These advantages do not mean that incumbents always win. If voters think that Congress has failed to deal effectively with important issues, they may respond by voting incumbents out of office at the next election.

Incumbency is not without its liabilities. Potential problems include troublesome issues, personal misconduct, variation in voter turnout, strong challengers and for House members, redistricting.

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