As we enter the midterms…let’s review the history of wave elections

Welcome to the Monday, December 6, Brew. 

By: Samuel Wonacott

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. Defining wave elections
  2. U.S. House elections with multiple incumbents
  3. Learn about petition blocking

An introduction to wave elections

As we draw closer to the 2022 midterm elections, you might encounter the term wave election. The term is frequently used to describe an election in which one party makes significant electoral gains. But is there an objective definition of a wave election?

This was a question we sought to answer a few years ago. In 2018 we published a study in which we examined the results of the 50 election cycles between 1918 and 2016—spanning President Woodrow Wilson’s (D) second midterm in 1918 to Donald Trump’s (R) first presidential election in 2016. We defined wave elections as the 20 percent of elections in that period resulting in the greatest swing against the president’s party. According to this definition, a U.S. House election cycle qualifies as a wave election if the president’s party loses at least 48 seats.

Based on this definition, between 1918 and 2016, 11 wave elections took place in the U.S. House. Six of them occurred during a president’s first midterm election. There were four waves when a Democrat was president (Obama, Clinton, Johnson, and Truman) and two with a Republican president (Harding and Hoover). The president’s party lost an average of 58 seats in the U.S. House during these six elections.

There are currently 221 Democrats in the U.S. House. In an average wave election, Democrats would lose 48 members, leaving them with 173. Since the House was expanded to 435 members in 1913, Democrats have had fewer than 173 members twice: 131 during the 67th Congress (1921-1923) and 164 during the 71st Congress (1929-1931).

The 2018 U.S. House elections were the most recent first midterm election. Democrats won a majority in the chamber, winning 40 additional districts—eight less than needed to qualify as a wave election.

The entire House is up for election in 2022. Democrats currently hold a majority in the chamber with 221 seats to Republicans’ 213. In the U.S. Senate, 34 of the chamber’s 100 seats are up for election. Demcorats currently control the Senste, with 48 members plus two independents who caucus with them. Republicans hold the remaining 50 seats. Vice President Kamala Harris (D) serves as a tie-breaking vote. Of the 34 seats up for election, 14 are held by Democrats and 20 by Republicans.

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U.S. House elections with multiple incumbents

Every decade following the U.S. census, states redraw their congressional district boundaries. When that happens, it’s not uncommon to see some U.S. House races with multiple incumbents. This can happen because the home addresses of multiple incumbents were drawn in the same district or because multiple incumbents decide the new district boundaries are more favorable for re-election.

So far this year, we’ve identified three 2022 congressional races with multiple incumbents:

Twenty-five states are still in the process of redrawing their congressional district maps, so we could see yet more races with multiple incumbents in 2022. 

In 2012, there were 13 U.S. House races with multiple incumbents. 

Here’s a fact you can pocket for your next trivia night: U.S. Representatives aren’t required to live in the districts they represent. The Constitution does, however, stipulate that they must be residents of the state in which they’re elected. 

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What is petition blocking?

Here’s a quick deep dive into the world of ballot measures. In 2022, voters will decide not only thousands of federal, state, and local races but also a raft of ballot measures. So far, 63 statewide ballot measures have been certified in 30 states for the 2022 ballot. That number doesn’t, however, include the hundreds of potential measures that could still end up on the ballot. 

With all this activity, we thought it’d be a good idea to review the concept of petition blocking. Petition blocking refers to organized efforts to prevent citizen-initiated measures or candidates from collecting sufficient signatures to meet ballot access requirements. This can take several forms, including: 

  • Physical blockages
  • Financial incentives
  • Legal complaints and lawsuits
  • Administrative actions

Here’s a recent instance of petition blocking:

On Nov. 29, Politico reported: “The Seminole Tribe of Florida is paying petition gathering firms to not work in Florida during the 2022 midterms as part of an effort to block rival proposed gaming constitutional amendments — a strategy that also includes running a separate informal signature gathering operation and hiring workers that interfere with other petition gatherers.”

Click the link below to read more recent and historical examples of petition blocking.

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