IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Many state legislative races are uncontested

It's supposed to be a night of anxiety, of waiting for the polls to close and returns to come in, of hoping that all those days on the campaign trail will pay off with a seat in the state legislature.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's supposed to be a night of anxiety, of waiting for the polls to close and returns to come in, of hoping that all those days on the campaign trail will pay off with a seat in the state legislature.

But in North Carolina, exactly half of this year's candidates for seats in the General Assembly can turn in early on Election Day - without an opponent, they had victory sewn up months ago. In South Carolina, 73 percent of candidates for state House and Senate don't have an opponent this year.

In Arkansas, it's 70 percent. In Georgia, 68 percent.

Nationwide, more than 30 percent of the roughly 6,100 legislative seats on the Nov. 7 ballots have already been decided because there is only one candidate for the office, according to an Associated Press analysis. In 29 of the 47 states with legislative contests this fall, at least a quarter of the races have just one candidate.

In North Dakota, where only about a half dozen of the state's 72 legislative seats up for election are uncontested, officials cite the single three-month session held every two years and civil nature of campaigns in the state as reasons for the competition.

"If someone enters into a race as a candidate, they're not going to have their reputation destroyed or their wife in tears," said state House Majority Leader Rick Berg, a Republican.

Partisanism and pointlessness
In 11 states, more than half of the races for state House and Senate are uncontested.

"At times, people recognize good leadership and they want to keep it," said Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat who hasn't faced a Republican challenger in any of her three elections, including this year's. "If you want a choice, get out and try to recruit somebody ... for a candidate."

The reasons are numerous. District boundaries drawn along partisan lines can makes the races seem pointless to candidates from the minority party. Low pay offered to lawmakers in some states can't make up for the time spent away from work and family. In many Western states, the chore of representing an expansive district and traveling hundreds of miles to the state capital is too great a burden.

"There are very few Democrats who are in some of these districts," said Bill Luckett, a spokesman for the Wyoming Democratic Party. "It's very hard to spend the time down (in) Cheyenne."

Legislators draw their own districts
It's not a new phenomenon, but one that has gotten slightly worse in recent years. In 1992, about a quarter of the races for seats in the nation's state legislatures didn't include a candidate from both major parties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since 2000, the rate has been about a third.

According to the AP analysis of ballots nationwide, there is only one candidate for office in 31 percent of this year's races. Because ballots can change before Election Day - a candidate might withdraw, for example - the number of uncontested seats may change slighltly before Nov. 7.

Perhaps the biggest reason, experts said, is a system in which legislators draw their own districts, which usually favor themselves and other incumbents.

In North Carolina, for example, there were 58 uncontested seats on Election Day 2000, the last held under districts drawn following the 1990 census. That number grew to 68 in 2002, when a tentative map was used, and reached 88 in 2004, when the current boundaries were used for the first time.

"Ironically, as you get more bipartisan redistricting, you get more partisan seats," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former redistricting consultant in California and Arizona.

Financial risk vs. common good
Potential candidates often decide isn't worth the financial hassle to run for office against an incumbent or in a district that favors one party over the other, said Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause in Georgia. This year in Georgia, 161 of the 236 legislative races on the ballot are uncontested.

"The cost to play, it weeds out otherwise qualified candidates because either they don't have the means themselves, or they're not comfortable with (raising) the donations," Bozarth said.

There are often financial costs once elected, too. In South Carolina, where 90 of the 124 races for state House are uncontested this year, it's hard to find people willing to take on what is essentially a full-time job for a salary of $10,500, said Jason Zacher, a spokesman for the state's House Republican Caucus.

That was the lesson learned by Rep. Doug Vinson in neighboring North Carolina. Seven months after taking office in 2005, the Charlotte Republican decided he couldn't manage his business and spend four days a week in Raleigh for a salary of less than $14,000. The 39-year-old said he missed too many of his children's ballet recitals and baseball games - 6-year-old Victoria had a particularly hard time.

"It was hard to convinced her why I needed to be in Raleigh," Vinson said. "She doesn't understand the common good."

He decided not to seek a second term this year, and the GOP candidate for his seat is unopposed.

No candidates, no choice
"North Carolina's voters deserve choice in who they elect but come November, most voters won't have a choice," said Bill Cobey, a former state Republican Party chairman, congressman and gubernatorial candidate. "There's something wrong with democracy in our great state."

There are only nine states where less than 10 percent of the elections for state legislature are uncontested, and in only three states - Hawaii, Nebraska and Louisiana - are there at least two candidates in every race. Nebraska is home to a unique single chamber legislature, and in Louisiana, there are only two races for state House this year and none for state Senate.

In Michigan, where only two of the 148 legislative seats on the ballot are uncontested, the state's political parties feel an obligation to field a candidate for every race, even if there's no chance of winning, said Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

"We simply don't like to leave the spaces blank," said Cynthia Cassell, a Republican from Grosse Pointe, Mich., who touts spending only $3.99 for her long-shot state Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Hansen Clarke of Detroit. "I'm just a name on a ballot, and I'm just trying to get people to think."