- In 2018, a third of all state legislative races only had one major party candidate running for reelection.
- This trend is consistent with recent history; more than 40 percent of state races in 2016, 2014, and 2012 only had one major party candidate.
- Many see gerrymandering as the main driver of this phenomenon, a theory that will be tested after 2020 census.
Easy victories for state-level candidates
On any given major election year, hundreds if not thousands of state legislative seats up for reelection across the United States will only have one major party candidate running for office. In 2018, for instance, 1,271 state districts only had a Democratic candidate, while 746 only had a Republican candidate. That’s a total of 33 percent of seats without two major party candidates.
According to data compiled by Ballotpedia, in 11 states more than half of all candidates did not face opposition from the other major party, and in five states more than 90 percent of candidates did not face opposition from the other major party.
While those figures may seem high, they are actually relatively low compared to recent election history. A swell of Democratic voters energized by opposition to President Donald Trump is a likely factor here, as GOP candidates enjoyed only 746 uncontested races, down from 1,210 in 2016. It was the most seats Democrats had contested (88 percent) and the fewest Republicans had contested (79.1 percent) since 2010.
By way of comparison to modern election history, in 2016, 42 percent of races only had one major party candidate. In 2014 that figure was 43 percent. In 2012 it was 40 percent.
The numbers fluctuate more significantly in odd-numbered years because fewer states hold elections in those years. This year, when Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia hold state elections, nearly 57 percent of races will not have major party competition. In 2017 that figure was 19 percent. Going back to 2015, it jumps back up to 61 percent.
While not nearly as systemic at the federal level, a significant number of races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives only had one major party candidate.In 2018, 41 of the 435 districts represented in the House of Representatives — about nine percent — only had one major party candidate. That, however, was lower than the historic average over the past 100 years of 14.4 percent.
The future of redistricting
Why this systemic lack of competitiveness? The most significant factor, many experts and analysts speculate, is gerrymandering, the process by which state legislatures apportion districts so that a large majority of voters in each district lean heavily toward one party or another. This creates “safe” seats for the candidates and discourages competition from the opposing party because the voting demographics in their districts are stacked to favor their party and policy platforms.
This trend will be worth keeping an eye on in the coming years, Ballotpedia Marquee Elections Editor Cory Eucalitto told Grassroots Pulse, because a number of states with newly-implemented independent redistricting commissions will be redrawing district lines after the 2020 census. Ideally, these new districts will more evenly distribute voters by party, resulting in more competitive elections.
As of may 2019, eight states have independent redistricting commissions: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Washington. While the exact procedures for redistricting vary among these states, they all make a point to limit the participation of elected officials in the process.
If these states see a sharp drop in races with only one major party candidate after redistricting in 2020, it wil make the evidence all the more compelling that gerrymandering is chiefly to blame for the lack of competitiveness in many state elections.
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Andrew Collins cut his teeth in politics as a congressional campaign staffer during the 2012 election. Since then he has worked in Washington, D.C. as the digital media manager and as a staff writer at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, and is a recent graduate of the Trinity Fellows Academy (class of ’17). His work has appeared in Politico, US News & World Report, The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Caller, and The Hill. He lives in Seattle, WA.