Partisanship yields uncontested races

AB Boyd | Cartoonist

By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

Incumbent candidates and partisan gerrymandering lead to uncontested races in elections.

An uncontested race is when one party’s candidate, often an incumbent or a district’s popular party candidate, goes unopposed in a general election.

Dr. Rebecca Flavin, political science professor, said the most common factor for why this might occur at the local level is because the district is not competitive, meaning it weighs heavily to one side or the other, either naturally or by partisan gerrymandering.

“And so with partisan gerrymandering, when district lines are drawn, or it naturally occurs that there is a district that leans heavily toward one party or the other, the race is essentially decided at the primary level,” Flavin said. “As a result, if you have a district that is say 75% Republican or 75% Democrat, that can sometimes explain why you don’t get a competitor at all.”

Gerrymandering comes into play each census year, which occurs every 10 years. After the population is counted, there is a reapportionment on the federal level of the 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives. A state will win or lose seats depending on if there was an increase or decrease in state population.

A population shift also leads to a reapportionment on the state level, redrawing district lines where there has been a shift, Flavin said. State and local governments then have to divide seats for their congressional representation and consider what this means for the state’s legislative body.

Gerrymandering is significant for non-competitive districts because depending on how state legislatures draw district lines, it might be tilted to one side or the other, Flavin said.

“The person redrawing the district line gets to determine the boundaries or the map for their own district,” Flavin said. “Sometimes what happens is that these state legislatures draw district lines both with a view to maximizing their party’s influence, both at the federal level and at the state level.”

In other years, when there isn’t redistricting, Flavin said unopposed races happen sometimes when there are strong incumbents running for reelection.

“Those who have been in office for a long time — or who are incredibly popular — you see this happening there as well,” Flavin said. “And part of it is resources, and at the end of the day, because the role that money plays in our elections for better or worse, it takes money to campaign. As a local or state party decides where their resources are best spent, the non-competitive races are sometimes a part of that calculus to not spend the financial resources or human capital, the time and energy of volunteers.”

Dr. David Bridge, political science professor, said the opposing party won’t nominate a candidate unlikely to win because losing could look even worse for their career. However, not running a candidate at all is also harmful for the party, he said.

“One problem can be that it can hurt a pipeline of legislators who build the career experience to move to the next level,” Bridge said. “Even if there’s a city council race that’s unopposed, if a party doesn’t run somebody in that race, even if they’re to lose, they’re not building the electoral experience of gathering votes, bundling money, and the pipeline for possible folks who could run for state legislature is winnowed if you don’t have more people running at the lower levels.”

Uncontested races are not helpful for voter turnout either, Flavin said.

“The more competitive a race is, the more excitement it generates, and the more enthusiasm you get, and the more likely that people are to turn out and vote,” Flavin said. “It’s the psychological idea that if a race is competitive, it’s more likely to feel like your vote matters.”

Although, Bridge said most voters who show up to vote are there for the presidential election, most non-competitive races are at the local level, so they don’t affect voter turnout considerably.

“It’s unfortunate, though, because the races that probably most affect your life are the local races, but that’s not why people are there to vote,” Bridge said.

In order to change the trends of uncontested races, Bridge said more voters are needed.

“Either one of two things have to happen: Republicans have to start voting Democratic or vice versa, or there has to be a giant new influx of voters,” he said. “So, if young voters turnout at historic levels, or if Latino voters turnout at historic levels, that could change the calculus, but that doesn’t happen often. It’s a massive shift in the electorate, without that partisanship is so entrenched.”