My Turn

Opinion: Looking back at elections, competition is sparse

By Cade Cannedy, El Prado
Posted 1/10/19

With 54 percent of New Mexico legislative races lacking major party representation in 2018, we once again find ourselves in the bottom 10 states.

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My Turn

Opinion: Looking back at elections, competition is sparse

Posted

While mopping a room in the house, I found myself standing on the only island of unmopped floor, in the corner farthest from the door. Sometimes you realize how obviously wrong you've been operating, only in hindsight.

There has been a mistake. One we haven't noticed, learned from or adapted to. Since 2010, America has averaged an uncontested legislative race rate of 38 percent. Four out of 10 races for State House Representative or Senator only feature one major party candidate. This isn't the case everywhere as Nebraska and Michigan had every state legislative race feature both Republican and Democratic candidates.

With 54 percent of New Mexico legislative races lacking major party representation in 2018, we once again find ourselves in the bottom 10 states. Since 1990, data from the Secretary of State shows New Mexico hasn't done better than 43 percent while peaking at 61 percent. In 1992, 43 of 70 House seats were uncontested -- the same as in 2016. Despite tremendous political changes, contentious elections like 2016 and 2000 and the sheer amount of societal progress over 28 years, New Mexico just can't seem to have competitive races.

Intuitively, the case seems clear-cut: competitive elections improve turnout, increase quality of representation and ensure political accountability. A 2011 study from Georgetown proved that politicians lacking major party competition "show up to vote less often and introduce fewer bills" and "are less active in lawmaking." A similar study out of [New York University] found competitive elections "force incumbent politicians to pay more heed" to voter reactions and constituent opinions. New Mexico's lack of legislative competitiveness is hurting its people. Nevertheless, like continuing to mop oneself into a corner, it seems we refuse to acknowledge this problem and have taken no steps to address it.

In determining the cause, political scientists have suggested a couple culprits, but the evidence is underwhelming. In 2000, a University of Iowa study suggested uncontested seats are "largely a function of the value of the seat to potential candidates and the electoral environment." In places where the state's perceived level of professionalization, how closely it mimics the United States Congress, was highest, the number of uncontested seats was lowest. On this professionalization metric, New Mexico ranked second to last.

Focusing on New Mexico allows us to dismiss many of the variables complicating the question. First, many believe holding local office is extremely time-consuming. However, over the course of a 730-day House term, there are only 90 days of Congressional meetings (omitting special sessions). Another worry is that running requires substantial fundraising. However, since 1994 in Taos's district, New Mexico's 42nd, the representative raised an average of $20,439 - about 1/100th what Ben Ray Luján raised in 2018. With websites like Crowdpac that allow candidates to gauge monetary support before entering a race, the financial risk is at an all-time low. Of consideration, too, are institutional impediments like candidate fees and ballot access petitions. In New Mexico's case, there are virtually none. Candidates don't have to pay to run and are only required to collect signatures equivalent to 3 percent of the registered district members in their party. For Taos, that's less than 450 signatures. Surely, the manpower involved with a campaign must be extensive? Again, this difficulty is overstated. With a constituency size of 25,980 per House member, the volunteer power required might be two close friends. The final concern, much harder to dismiss, is political campaigns open individuals and their families to severe scrutiny in the public eye. While this is certainly valid, it might also be blown out of proportion. With 72 percent of people unable to name their state legislator, it seems unlikely these races get very nasty.

Despite the cause remaining unidentified, New Mexico can curtail this trend. A University of Chicago study demonstrated that imposing term limits greatly decreased campaign expenditures and reduced uncontested races by 24 percent. New Mexico could also change the way it pays legislators to improve its "professional" status. We currently pay legislators $164 per day attending Congress, making it unsustainable as a stand-alone career. Moving to a salary would not only make seats more competitive but also allow working people the opportunity to run without risking financial turmoil. The most immediate response, however, is simply to compete for office.

New Mexicans must realize that our democracy is not functioning well. It is on us to understand that running for office, especially in one-sided counties, is one of the best ways to make a tangible difference in our communities. So, run. What's really stopping you?

Cade Cannedy is an El Prado resident.

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