Over the past ten years, the choices left to voters at the ballots have become increasingly slim as the number of uncontested elections continues to climb.
The percentage of uncontested elections over the last decade has reached an all-time high, according to the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy at the College of William and Mary
The study, led by professor John McGlennon of the government department and graduate student Ian Mahoney, found that only about 60.3 percent of over 6,000 elections in 2012 will experience a major contest by fielding candidates from the two major political parties.
“It can help students better understand that some of the most important offices in the country are not facing significant contests,” McGlennon said. “It’s an issue of whether or not voters really have a choice in the positions that most directly affect them. State legislators make laws regarding school funding, voting regulations and other social issues like drinking and driving, and they have a lot of impact on roads. If you’re not having real contest for these state legislative seats, it makes it harder for the public’s views to be represented in the legislature itself.”
The study traced and analyzed election cycles of 43 of the 50 states from 2002 until 2012, attributing much of the change in contested elections to redistricting.
“The main finding of this study is that over the course of the last ten years, we have the lowest number of contested races,” McGlennon said. “We attribute that in part to redistricting. In a number of states, legislative lines were redrawn to make a larger number of seats safe for one party or another.”
Mahoney has no doubt about the effects of redistricting on elections.
“It is not at all a coincidence that the two smallest years were the two years after redistricting,” Mahoney said.
According to the study, reapportionment plans could potentially discourage competition by spreading one party’s supporters over those districts with a majority opposition vote.
Professor Christine Nemacheck, both a government professor and the College’s Pre-Law Advisor, agreed.
“Students, and even Americans in general, are not aware of the importance of redistricting, both at the state and the federal level,” Nemacheck said. “It’s really important because it’s one of the ways that parties can exercise control and gain dominance in the legislatures. Students need to understand the implications of redistricting and how it affects their number of options.”
The study also analyzed the effects of “wave” elections on contest rates.
“Potential candidates didn’t see this election year as being a wave election, where one side or another had a particular advantage,” McGlennon said.
Wave elections play a significant role on which candidates actually run for office.
“In years where there is not the same public interest and public fervor, as a party, you aren’t as bold because you’re not sure what support you are going to get,” Mahoney said.
McGlennon and Mahoney used state election officials to compile their data, suplementing some cases with newspaper reports and other public information. The overall effect offers insightful information for students here at the College and across the country.
As elections continue throughout 2012, Mahoney and McGlennon urge students to pay attention.
“I’ve always felt that local elections never get enough attention,” Mahoney said. “It’s important to know what affects an election to become more informed.”