Far too many legislative races are uncontestedby Kerry Drake
— June 24, 2014
Only one name will appear on the ballot in three out of every 10 Wyoming legislative races this year. Barring an eligible write-in candidate accepting a party’s nomination for the House or Senate, 30 percent of the members elected for the 63rd Legislature this year will waltz into their jobs on Jan. 13, 2015 without having to knock on a single door or hand out a single brochure.
Oh, you’ll still see them. Many will be out campaigning as if they had opponents in both the primary and general elections, trying to boost their name recognition in case they ever run for a higher office. Some no doubt feel if they don’t talk to potential voters, they might draw opposition in a future legislative race.
They also have campaign contributions from people, political parties and political action committees to spend, so there’s no reason not to create yard signs, posters and pamphlets that remind voters what they’ve done and/or discuss what they’ll do when elected. They also probably have already taken a family photo for their campaign pamphlet, so why not use it now instead of waiting to print it on the front of a Christmas card?
I was at last year’s legislative session, and guess what? There’s no way nearly one-third of the state’s lawmakers should be able to simply show up and begin crafting new laws without at least having to fight for the opportunity to represent the people in their districts. There may be a handful of legislators each session whose work is so outstanding, there is a general consensus they are unbeatable.
But having competition is not only a time-honored tradition in politics, it’s a way for legislators to get better at their jobs. By having to hone their messages to emphasize what they want to accomplish in office, or defend what they’ve done, candidates keep on issues and discover what constituents want.
Without accountability, uncontested candidates for House and Senate have a long time to serve without ever having to explain their votes. By the time the next election rolls around, many voters will likely forget a candidate’s past pledges if there’s no one to offer a contrasting opinion or point out a candidate could be overstating — or even outright lying — about what they did for the past few years at the Capitol.
Who’s getting these free rides? Out of 60 House races, more than a quarter are uncontested. In the Senate, nearly half of the 15 open seats have a single candidate. Competency or effectiveness don’t seem to be much of a factor, because some of the lawmakers on the list didn’t get a single bill passed during this year’s budget session. Others are brand new to the state’s political scene.
Why aren’t more people willing to get involved in the process? There are several reasons beyond laziness or the attitude that someone else could do a better job.
To find the answer, it’s worth examining how Wyoming used to elect its legislators. Until 1992, when the state was sued and the Legislature was ordered by the courts to be reapportioned, Senate and House districts were based on county boundaries. Candidates ran on an at-large basis, and the number of legislators each county had was based upon population.
I remember covering elections in Laramie County under the old system, and the battles could get pretty intense. If there were 15 House candidates to fill nine seats, all 15 ran against each other. Who finished at the top of the heap was always the main story, of course, but the fight for ninth place was closely monitored.
The disadvantage to at-large races was that all of the elected officials in a county could live in close proximity to each other in the core of a city — even within just a few blocks — leaving outlying areas without any representation. There was no direct accountability to voters.
That changed with the creation of the single-member district system Wyoming uses today. County borders are no longer used, as 60 House districts of approximately the same population were created throughout the state. Two districts were combined into one to create the 30 Senate districts.
In the Republican and Democratic primaries, candidates file for a specific seat and run against each other for their respective party’s nomination. The winners then go head-to-head in the general election, which gives candidates the opportunity to address issues to voters with similar needs who live in the same area. This provides for direct accountability.
Proponents of single-member districts in the early 1990s confidently predicted the change would result in more legislative candidates, but that hasn’t been the case. Why didn’t anyone challenge Republican Reps. Hans Hunt of Newcastle and Tom Walters of Casper? Why did Democratic Rep. James Byrd of Cheyenne and Republican Sen. Curt Meier of LaGrange not merit even a single challenger? Does everyone in their respective districts think they are unbeatable?
I don’t think so, because nobody serves in the Legislature without making some constituents either angry or downright hostile. Chances are there were people in all 75 legislative districts who have considered running but opted not to, or put it off for another year.
Political campaigns can sometimes bring families together, but they can also take time away from a candidate’s work. Then there’s the knowledge that if successful, a candidate becomes an officeholder with a lot of responsibility.
Wyoming’s part-time Legislature may only meet for a total of 60 days in two years, but the job also requires working on committees throughout the year. Unless you’re a committee chairman who can make the other members come to your hometown to meet, serving on legislative panels can also involve a lot of time on the road.
Legislators are paid, but no one will ever get rich serving in the state’s Legislature. Members receive $150 day, plus a per diem of $109 each day for meals, lodging and other expenses. Some potential candidates are lost simply because they could not absorb the loss of income from their regular jobs.
I think the increasing cost of campaigning is a primary reason there are so many uncontested races. In the early 1990s, spending more than $1,000 on a House race was unusual. When a few Senate races started climbing to a cost of several thousand dollars, it raised eyebrows.
Candidates who want to can certainly still run bare-bones, frugal campaigns, but they diminish their chances of winning. Statehouse campaigns are considerably more expensive these days. A study of 2009-10 campaign spending in Wyoming House and Senate races by followthemoney.org found the average House race cost $6,889, while the Senate average was $10,236.
This pales in comparison to national averages for state legislative races for the same years: $111,156 for the Senate and $56,142 for the House. But it’s still a considerable amount of money to raise, and unless a candidate has a fund-raising committee, the burden of financing the campaign often falls to the candidate.
These factors are all important in a person’s decision whether to run for the Legislature, but the political imbalance in our Legislature is likely the overriding reason so many candidates get free rides. It’s extremely difficult for the Democratic Party to recruit candidates when there are only a dozen Democrats in a 90-member Legislature.
How would you like to make this sales pitch to someone you think would make a great Democratic state legislator: “It’s going to take quite a bit of time and money to campaign and serve if elected, and you’ll have to listen patiently to a lot of people who don’t agree with you. You may very well be routed by an incumbent. You can get things accomplished through compromise, but because there aren’t many members of your party, the chances of being steamrolled on an issue by Republicans if you try to introduce legislation are high.”
Those are a lot of disincentives, even if someone wants to serve the public.
No matter how you account for the lack of candidates, here’s the bottom line: Many familiar faces will return to press the same issues they always have, so if you think change in state government is necessary, the next Legislature is already a disappointment for you.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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