WHAT OTHERS SAY: MU professors explain disinterest in public office

Wednesday, April 9, 2014 | 3:04 p.m. CDT

Political calculation is about winning, not competing.

That concept is among a number of reasons offered by two political science professors for the lack of contested races in upcoming elections.

In the aftermath of the March 25 filing deadline for state and county offices, we lamented in this forum how a seeming decrease in candidates is diminishing voter choice and, consequently, representative government.

We invited feedback from political science professors at MU and received responses from Peverill Squire and John Petrocik. Among the reasons they cited are: political calculation; money, including the high cost of campaigning and low salaries; prospects for advancing to higher office; and the notion of public service.

Squire characterized districts — primarily state legislative and congressional districts — as “heavily skewed in favor of one party.” The result, he said, is “potential candidates from the opposing party correctly calculate their prospects for victory are so remote that running almost seems foolish.”

Petrocik added: “Missouri legislative districts are designed to elect candidates of the party of the incumbent. It is a waste of mental resources, time, and money to run where prospects are generally hopeless. Ergo the incumbent is rarely challenged. Local offices often have the same trait.”

  • Issue: Money

Squire said, for many prospective candidates, “a simple cost-benefit analysis argues against running. The financial rewards are insufficient to compensate for the time taken away from one’s family and occupation.”

He added: “Perhaps the biggest barrier … is the prospect of having to raise campaign funds. Most people find having to ask strangers for contributions objectionable.”

  • Issue: Advancement

In addition to low salaries for some offices, Petrocik said some seats “are not necessarily good stepping stones to higher office. If an office is not a part of the farm-system structure for higher office and a political career, ‘why bother?’ is the perspective of many who want a political career and think about running for office.”

  • Issue: Public service

Petrocik said public service is not an “overwhelming force” for people.

Squire went a step further and said, “the psychological benefits that might accrue from a sense of civic duty have decreased as the level of abuse the public hurls at public officials has increased. Simply stated, for most people the thought of holding office is more unappealing today than it used to be.”

The trends identified by these professors are not encouraging.

Political non-compete efforts and public vitriol discourage participation in the process.

What can be done? First, we must insist that periodic redistricting be reasonable and fair, not a political spoils system. We must encourage honest, idea-oriented people to seek office. And we must temper our criticism and disapproval with citizen participation and proposed solutions.

Government is not an “us versus them” proposition. Our leaders and representatives are elected by us, from among us.

We have an obligation to hold them accountable, but that is very different from vilification.

Copyright Jefferson City News Tribune. Reprinted with permission.

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