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Fewer Voices, Fewer Choices

What Can Diminished Candidate Numbers Tell Us About State Government?

As we approach the 2014 election a few things are certain: this is the most important election of your lifetime (until the next one), you are tired of the non-stop campaign commercials on radio and television, and your choices for who will represent you in Madison are the fewest they’ve been in years.
An analysis from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance shows that prior to the August partisan primary, the 2014 election already had the fewest number of candidates running since 2006 (246 vs. 243). Not only are there fewer candidates overall, but in 55 of the 116 legislative races being contested this year there is only one major party candidate running. What does this mean? In nearly half of the races this year, voters effectively have no choice about who will represent them in Madison.
Every two years, all 99 members of the State Assembly and one-third of the 33 State Senators are up for election. Currently, the Republicans are in control of both houses of the legislature, with a 60-39 advantage in the Assembly and an 18-15 majority in the Senate.

The partisan control of the legislature is not expected to change much after this election. In fact, with 29 Republicans running uncontested for Assembly seats, that party is already 60 percent of the way to reclaiming their majority in that house.

One might think that a wave of retiring incumbents would make room for many new faces and encourage a robust competition for open seats. In 2014, fully one-quarter (29 of 117) of the contested seats are open as a result of a retiring incumbent. In the Senate, 41 percent (7 of 17) seats up for election have no incumbent running (three retiring Democrats and four retiring Republicans). Nonetheless, the GOP majority in the upper house is not expected to shift much more than one seat in either direction.

What can we make of this? At a time when voter dissatisfaction with government is high at all levels, we see fewer people running. Even when we see a wave of retiring incumbents (perhaps due to frustration with the partisan rancor and inertia) no significant change is expected in the balance of power.

The last time candidate numbers were this low was 2006, a time when voters were also dissatisfied with government, but they were also growing impatient with foreign wars. It was a nationalized “wave election” that advantaged Democrats at all levels of government. We saw a counter-movement in 2010 when the Tea Party energized Republican candidates at all levels, and that party took over both houses of the State Legislature.

Definitive conclusions are hard to make. Election cycles with low numbers of candidates might indicate voter apathy or institutional frustration. High numbers of retiring incumbents could signal a sea-change in the legislature or bring us more of the same because of safe districts that advantage the major parties.
One thing is certain: voters lose when they have fewer choices on Election Day.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 Fox Cities Chamber Business Magazine.  Click here for more great articles.

About Josh Dukelow

Josh is the Vice-President of Public Policy and Leadership at the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce. Josh is passionate about municipal government, arts & culture, and his dog Leroy.

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