Uncontested Elections: Another Downside to Redistricting
Good news for democracy: the electoral process has been made so efficient that you don’t even need to vote anymore! In a surprisingly large number of state lawmaker “races” across the country, you can either vote for one candidate or… well, there’s not even a second option, actually.
In Texas, for example, nearly one-third of the 150 Texas House seats will face no challenger in 2014. Now that the filing deadline has passed, that’s a total of 43 state representatives that will hold office until 2016 with essentially no say-so from their constituents. If democracy is about offering citizens a choice on who governs them, this system is not democratic.
Why are unopposed races becoming so common? Look no further than redistricting. If you’re not already familiar with why redistricting (or gerrymandering) is such a problem, try reading “Redistricting: The Easiest Way to Steal an Election.” Here’s the gist, though: after each Census, lawmakers are tasked with redrawing their own district lines to reflect population change. Unfortunately, the politicians generally use the opportunity to draw district borders along partisan lines (taking into account the party affiliation of the residents) to carve out secure seats for themselves and their friends.
As a result, many newly created districts have a disproportionate number of Republican or Democrat voters. Given that one party has given itself an intentional advantage in an area, it should come as little surprise when opposing parties don’t even bother to run a candidate in a race they were designed to lose.
Following redistricting in Illinois at the turn of the decade, elections were practically a joke by 2012. Just over half of the state senators ran uncontested, leaving voters no choice when they went to the polls. While one of the effected state senators, Dan Harmon, assured the media that he was still “campaigning” despite facing no opposition, he admitted, “There are only two ways to run for election – unopposed or scared.” So nice of his party to gerrymander his district to ensure his race was the former.
Illinois wasn’t alone that election cycle – a study by the College of William & Mary found that 40% of state races did not have a candidate from both major parties. Georgia and South Carolina were the worst examples of this phenomenon, with nearly 80% of its respected state legislators on the ballot running unopposed. Unsurprisingly, the college points to earlier redistricting as a primary reason that so many politicians cruised to victory.
Some may wonder why no one opposes these legislators just for democracy’s sake. For starters, campaigns are expensive. People don’t want to dump a bunch of money into a campaign they don’t believe is feasible to win. Additionally, politics is a game about winning. Office-seekers don’t want to intentionally tie themselves to a losing campaign so that they’ll still be considered viable for future opportunities.
In some of these races, third-party candidates or write-ins emerge late to offer some kind of alternative to the de facto winner, but they generally lack the resources to mount an effective opposition or convince voters that they’re serious contenders.
We’ve all seen the polls: Americans are wildly unhappy with their political leaders, yet incumbents manage to win back their seats about 90% of the time. With redistricting, it’s no wonder how this contradiction occurs. In many cases, voters couldn’t even vote out a disappointing candidate if they wanted to.