Elections and Choices

May 15, 2014

G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young

Many Republicans who show up on May 20 to vote in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary will confront a familiar situation in American politics: they don’t have any choices.

Apparently, a few counties will have political GOP gadfly Bob Guzzardi on the ballot because a Supreme Court decision barring him from running came too late. But let’s not kid ourselves. There is no competition in the Republican Party for governor.

And that’s really too bad because as polls and other anecdotal evidence suggests, many Republicans would have preferred choices this year.

That some 3 million Pennsylvania Republicans have no primary choice this year for governor isn’t the worst of it; electoral choices are disappearing across the American political landscape, from state legislatures to Congress and beyond. More and more, Americans have fewer and fewer electoral choices at all levels of politics.

In fact, what passes for competition these days are the spasmodic shock waves that now convulse our politics from time to time, such as the 2010 tea party uprising or the infamous 2005 midnight pay raise in Pennsylvania. The lack of normal political competition has made the system particularly vulnerable to these electoral tsunamis.

Political competition constitutes a fundamental American value. It spurs the accountability of elected officials while ensuring the political system works to produce sound public policy.  Yet, American politicians regularly exploit opportunities to limit it further.

For example, the Corbett campaign this year strenuously worked to keep his possible opponent off the ballot by using judicial challenges, a tactic employed by incumbents in both parties. These “ballot access challenges” are only one of an arsenal of tools politicians now regularly employ to limit competition. Another common tactic is intimidating would be opponents by raising massive amounts of cash. Even worse are the insidiously corrosive decennial reapportionment practices – the re-drawing of legislative district boundaries – that have all but eliminated competition from congressional races.

The evidence that political competition is disappearing is abundant. Fewer and fewer state legislative and congressional districts feature serious competition between the Republican and Democratic parties. Within these one-party districts, incumbents today typically face little or no opposition.

Once elected, they stay in office as long as they wish, rarely attracting serious challengers. Since the mid 1960s, at least 85 percent of U.S. House members running for re-election have won and at least 75 percent of Senate members running have won. Indeed, some years at state level the re-election rate exceeds 95 percent. In this year’s Pennsylvania primary, for example, only two members of Congress face opposition.

Today, only retirement produces any kind of real competition (open seats) and even then the competition occurs between members of the same party because reapportionment has made seats “safe” for one party or the other. And these open-seat elections are often non-competitive as well.

Sadly, we have now reached the place in our political history where a truly competitive congressional race (that is a race that either side could win) is so rare that often it is carried as a national story. And no wonder.

In any one contemporary congressional election no more than 10 percent of all House seats are really in play. The rest are either dominated by an incumbent – or are so one-sided in party registration – as to remove all doubt of who will win.

This disconnect between the competition we revere in our economic life – and the non- competition we get in our political life – is one of the most jarring inconsistencies in American life. It is also arguably a major cause of the dysfunctionality so often condemned in contemporary politics.

It’s clear that the public better understands the impact of competition in business than it does the loss of competition in politics. In business the loss of competition means fewer products and services, products and services of lower quality, and products and services that cost more. Most people understand this pretty well and few want to see it happen.

But in government and politics, the loss of competition is not so apparent, and hence not so well understood. But it is just as real. As in business, the quality of the public policy we get is directly related to the competitiveness of the political system that produces it.

Can we doubt that we get lousy public policy for the same reason that customers of a monopoly tend to get lousy services? Our politicians have little incentive to make it better.

And politicians who don't have to compete also don't have to worry about their jobs. And because they don't, fewer of them are going to take on the tough issues or try to solve the really intractable problems.

How do we restore competition to our politics? There are many answers including fixing our broken reapportionment system and getting rid of some election laws that discourage competition. But before any of that, we need to recognize and acknowledge just how bad it has become. Until we first do that, competition will continue to decline in political life, and politics and public policy will continue to decline with it.

Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://www.fandm.edu/politics. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2014 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.