COLUMN: State legislative districts lack competition for office

Thursday, April 8, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Although Missouri voters will have more state legislative candidates to choose from in 2010 than in recent years, we could do better. Ideally, all elected offices would have at least two candidates from which voters could choose from.

A total of 465 candidates, including 34 third party candidates, have filed for the 163 House seats or the 17 open Senate seats (half of the 34 member Senate is up for election every two years). That’s an average of 2.3 candidates per seat. While that’s not bad, it could be better.

Over the past decade, Missouri has ranked above average among the 50 states in having competitive legislative elections. This means the state has frequent competitive primaries and has minority parties doing well in the general election. Maine is considered the most competitive legislature and Arizona the least, according to a 2009 text, "Reforming State Legislative Elections" by William Salka.

This year, 383 Democratic or Republican candidates have filed for House seats compared to 323 in 2008 and 328 in 2006. For the Senate, 47 major party candidates have filed this year, compared with 34 in 2008 and 41 in 2006, according to the Missouri Secretary of State Web site.

Aggregate numbers are interesting but don’t tell the full story. For the 17 Senate seats up for election, two candidates face no opponent in either the primary or in the general election and six face no opposite party opponent but have a party primary opponent. In the other nine Senate districts, about half, there is both primary and general election competition. However, of these nine seats probably only three are toss ups. There are three Senate districts where four members of the same party are chasing the same nomination in August with the winner virtually guaranteed election in November.

For the House, 35 current representatives face no competition. They are going back to Jefferson City for sure. This is fewer unopposed representatives than the 48 in 2008 or 40 in 2006. This is much more competitive than the 53 Representatives who faced no opposition back in 1998 or the 57 unopposed in 1988. On the surface, it appears that legislative term limits have created more electoral competition.

This year, there are 212 Republican and 171 Democratic candidates for the 163 House seats. This appears to make the Republicans an early favorite to hold their majority in the House. Forty two Republicans face no opposite party competition compared with 28 seats that are certain to be kept by the Democrats. In other words, in 93 House districts, or 57 percent, there are candidates from each of the major parties on the ballot.

There are good reasons why there are not more legislative candidates. First, over half of Missouri House and Senate districts are not competitive. While nothing is impossible in politics, some things are unlikely. If you happen to be a Republican living in a loft in downtown St. Louis, you probably won’t be going to the legislature. Secondly, incumbents are hard to beat. Especially with term limits, often it is wiser to wait two years until the incumbent cannot run for another term so that there is a more attractive open seat.

While there are fewer unopposed House and Senate candidates than in recent elections, the democratic goal should be at least two candidates in every race. Political science research offers four alternatives for increasing the number of candidates. First, increase the attractiveness of the legislature by increasing salaries and support staff. A $100,000 a year business person or lawyer would think three times about entering a legislative race with a $35,000 salary and a lot of travel and grief.

A second alternative, for which citizens should be demanding, is to have more competitive legislative districts where parties can effectively compete. With redistricting planned for 2011, this is a timely reform. Some states have adopted judicial redistricting commissions to remove this decision from the legislature. A legislator seeking to protect his or her seat can cause all kinds of problems.

Third, reducing the burden of fundraising and the cost of campaigning is likely to increase the number of candidates. Maine, with its public funding, is the textbook example of a state with competitive legislative races. On the other end, Arizona, which also has public funding, is not competitive largely because of partisan gerrymandering.

Finally, adopt new election laws to provide “Top 2 voting” where all candidates for a specific office are listed together on the primary ballot and the “Top 2” vote-getters face each other again in the general election. Washington State has recently switched to this system with good early reviews.

Elections need candidates. Elections are the chief mechanism for voters expressing their views to elected officials. Elections are the clearest way to hold our officials responsible and accountable. As most candidates will tell you, they learn a lot by speaking at public forums, attending chili dinners and going door to door in the summer heat.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.

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Kyle Dirck April 8, 2010 | 11:12 a.m.

Or, move to a proportional system, eliminating (or reducing, if you opt for mixed-member) even the possibility for gerrymandering, while allowing the people to express more than a binary opinion.

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