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No Vote Necessary

Redistricting is creating a U.S. House of Lords.

By David S. Broder
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page A37

John Mica has pulled off a feat many of us would have thought impossible. He has been elected to Congress without ever having his name on the ballot this year. His story says a lot about what has happened to the House of Representatives, the part of the federal government designed to be closest to the people, but one that has become more like an American House of Lords.

I heard about Mica from Russ Freeburg, a retired Chicago Tribune political reporter who now lives in Mica's Florida district. When Freeburg and his wife went to vote, he noticed something missing. His e-mail tells the story:

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"I pointed out to an election official at our polling place that there was no House race on the ballot, even though congressmen and women were up every two years. She immediately called the Volusia County supervisor of elections for an explanation.

"While she was on the phone . . . I was informed that my congressman, John Mica, was unopposed. I said, 'I knew that, but shouldn't his name be on the ballot, with a line below it for a write-in candidate?' That seemed traditional to me. I asked whether Mica didn't need to get at least one registered vote somewhere so he could be returned to Washington as an 'elected official' to serve another two years. The answer came back over the phone that Mica had been 'automatically reinstated in Washington.'

"Well, I covered a lot of politics in Chicago and Washington and elsewhere, but that phrase was new to me. . . . Mica wasn't even listed among the Florida House winners in the Orlando Sentinel the day after the election. It is like he no longer exists and is some sort of 'stealth' person representing his district in Washington. . . . I like Mica. He is a good congressman. But I thought people running for office had to be on the ballot, if for no other reason than an official stamp that his office and his district exist."'

Not so, it turns out. Mica, a 61-year-old, six-term Republican House member from Winter Park, Fla., was the beneficiary of a venerable Florida law saying that if you are unopposed and no one has filed notice of a write-in campaign against you, your name doesn't appear on the ballot. Since Mica had no primary opponent, his constituents never encountered his name at any point this year.

Mica's case is not unique. Five of Florida's 25 representatives ran unopposed this year, four of them, like Mica, with no primary opponent. Around the country, 30 others were similarly unchallenged. In Florida, as in other states, even those who had opponents waltzed to victory. Nationally, more than 85 percent of House incumbents won by landslide majorities of more than 60 percent. In California, with 53 House members, only three fell short of that mark. In Florida, only one of the representatives -- the famous Katherine Harris -- received less than 60 percent of the vote. The district lines in these and most other states were drawn by partisan legislatures to protect incumbents of both parties from the inconvenience of competition.

Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote-The Center for Voting and Democracy, said in a memo last week that "this House election was the least competitive in history." He based that claim, he told me, on the fact that outside of Texas, where a controversial Republican redistricting in 2003 succeeded in defeating four of five targeted Democrats, only three incumbents lost their seats. That's a 99 percent success rate outside Texas.

The Supreme Court has ordered a lower court to rehear the Texas redistricting case, but unless it someday decides to curb partisan gerrymandering, the makeup of the House is almost immune to change. Thanks to rigged boundaries and the incumbents' immense fundraising advantage, nearly 96 percent of the "races" were won by a margin of at least 10 percent. Richie noted that 29 of the 33 open seats (with no incumbents running) stayed with the same party. The turnout of voters was about 50 percent higher than in off-year 2002, but party ratios in the House barely budged.

At the founding of this republic, House members were given the shortest terms -- half the length of the president's, one-third that of senators -- to ensure that they would be sensitive to any shifts in public opinion. Now they have more job security than the queen of England -- and as little need to seek their subjects' assent.

Without apology, they enjoy being "automatically reinstated in Washington."

davidbroder@washpost.com


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