Lack of races not conducive to good democracy

FOR A PRIMARY ELECTION contest, there were very few actual ‘contests’ on last Tuesday’s ballot in Sheboygan County.

Those who cast their ballot in Sheboygan County in the primary for the fall general election – and there were few, only about 15 percent of those eligible to vote in the county, according to unofficial figures from County Clerk Jon Dolson – found only two contested races in which to make a choice. Both of those were on the Democratic side, in the 6th Congressional District, covering the entire county, and the 26th Assembly District, covering part of the city of Sheboygan; all of the city of Sheboygan Falls; the villages of Adell, Cedar Grove, Oostburg and Random Lake; and the towns of Holland, Lima, Sherman and Wilson.

According to a study by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, voters in Sheboygan County were not alone in that lack of choices.

The WTA found that there are only 224 candidates for 115 state legislative seats up for election this fall – the lowest number in this millennium.

A little simple arithmetic will show that 224 candidates for 132 open seats means there are a number of legislative races that will be uncontested in November. Indeed, the WTA study shows voters in six of 16 state Senate districts and 35 of 99 state Assembly districts will not have any choice at all in November to represent them in Madison for the next two or four years.

When considering districts where the only opposition to a major party candidate is either an independent or third party candidate, the WTA study found that in only 59 of the 115 districts will voters be able to choose between a Republican and a Democrat in November.

President Todd A. Berry of the WTA summarized the study with several questions:

“If voters nationally have been engaged so far this year, why did relatively few run for our legislature, even though, compared to Congress, state campaigns are cheaper and less vitriolic, and state service is more likely to yield results? Is government the problem, or do we citizens share blame due to inattentiveness, apathy, or laziness?”

The answer is probably “yes” to all of the above, but there is another cause the WTA study did not address.

That is the partisan redistricting plan drawn up in secret by the Republican-controlled Legislature following the 2010 census.

That created a large number of districts drawn to ensure heavy margins of either Republican or Democratic votes and fewer districts with a more equal balance of strength between the two parties.

That resulted in Republicans winning 74 percent of the seats in the state Assembly with only 52 percent of the total votes for the Assembly statewide.

In Sheboygan County, the new map split the city of Sheboygan – with a long history of electing more Democrats to the legislature than Republicans – between two Assembly and two Senate districts, where it for decades it had always been entirely within one Assembly and one Senate district.

That kind of partisan mapping created a plethora of ‘safe’ districts, both Democratic and Republican, where running for the Legislature as a member of the ‘opposition’ party becomes an exercise in futility. That is being borne out by the growing lack of candidates for the Legislature that we continue to see.

That does not serve democracy and does not serve us as citizens of this state. Competition is key to keeping democracy vital and alive.

The WTA study strengthens the call for Wisconsin to follow the lead of many other states and mandate that legislative district maps be drawn in some non-partisan form in the future.

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