Posted on July 28, 2006The Palm Beach Post editorial board recently lamented the fact that the filing deadline has now passed for state legislative elections, and indeed half of the Florida legislature will now be "re-elected" without facing any primary or general election opposition. Since these politicians (almost all incumbents) are facing no challengers - the voters have been cut completely out of the process, and the parties will get to annoint their candidates.
The Post tips the hat toward incumbent advantage being a possible culprit, but they place the bulk of blame on partisan redistricting -- which they feel has "cut the number of competitive districts and discouraged challengers."
Election? What election? Palm Beach Post Editorial Wednesday, July 26, 2006
What if they gave an election, and nobody needed to vote?
Florida isn't at that point, but the story again this election year is how few elections there are when it comes to the Legislature. After last week's qualifying, a majority of the 2007 Legislature had been elected.
Wait. Isn't the primary scheduled for Sept. 5? Isn't the general election scheduled for Nov. 7? Yes, and yes. But of the 120 seats in the House, all of which come open every two years, 55 drew only one candidate. In almost every case, it was the incumbent. Only 20 of the 40 Senate seats are up this year, because the four-year terms are staggered. Just nine of those races have more than one candidate. Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast voters have it better than most. Of the 17 legislative races, just six are uncontested.
One reason for a non-election election may be that the incumbent is all-powerful and all-popular. More often in Florida, though, the problem is that the district is all-safe. Partisan redistricting, which politicians use to choose their voters, has cut the number of competitive districts and discouraged challengers. Also, the Legislature wrongly allows write-in candidates to close primaries when the candidates are only from the same major party. Both parties use the loophole by finding put-up write-ins for the sole purpose of making the turnout smaller.
An independent commission could draw more competitive districts. That would be a start toward giving elections back to the voters.
The evidence from other states suggests, however, that independent redistricting commissions are not likely to solve this problem. In states where independent redistricting commissions have been used, competition has not increased (neither has diversity for that matter). The reality of our political system is that partisan geography -- ie: where voters of a party tend to live -- greatly mitigates the ability of independent redistricting to create more competitive districts.
Every state, Florida included, has a natural partisan geography (instead of blue states and red states, think blue counties and red counties) that means arbitrarily drawing lines will almost certainly yield districts where one party dominates and a challenge would be a fool's errand for aspiring politicians and a waste of money for parties. But this elephant in the room only gets noticed when we contrast single-member-districts to proportional voting systems. Illinois elected its legislature in three-seat districts with cumulative voting for decades, so this concept shouldn't seem so foreign to Americans -- its just been forgotten.
But as we twiddle our thumbs about what to do about uncompetitive elections, accountability won't come from independent redistricting, we've got to completely overhaul our electoral system. Proportional voting systems would put greater control over elections in the hands of voters by making every seat competitive, in the sense that the parties have an incentive to contest all of them.
The is one of the clearest ways that we can stop the emergence of de facto Communist-style elections (as currently exist across the U.S.) where voters show up to ratify or annoint a pre-determined result. Floridians, indeed all Americans, should see this as a wake-up-call.