The Associated Press has found Rhode Island to be one of only three states in which more than two-thirds of state legislators are elected without competition. The others are Hawaii and Massachusetts, and in all three, it’s Democrats who have the choke hold.
The Hawaiian political science professor quoted in the article has the basic problem correct:
“Democracy needs an opposition party,” said Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii political science professor. “You need someone who has an incentive to make policy decisions more transparent, to force hard choices on the majority party, to not allow everything to operate behind closed doors, which is often what happens in a single-party state.”
However, the solutions that the state has pursued are wrong:
To encourage more people to vote, Hawaii lawmakers have introduced several election reform bills this year. These include voting by mail, automatic voter registration and using ranked-choice voting in special elections and partisan primaries.
People voting is not the problem. People running is. In the article, Common Cause Rhode Island suggests public financing, but Rhode Islanders aren’t declining to run for public office because of the cost of running. They’re not running because of the cost of being people who run and maybe win.
First of all, government is so big that public office comes with a lot of responsibility and takes a good deal of time without commensurate pay. On top of that, if you’re in public office in Rhode Island, you’re responsible for multiple regular filings for ethics and campaign finance. In the first case, that includes every single investment you might have, and in the second case, it includes a requirement to maintain a bank account, reconciling detailed reports regularly. And in all cases, you’re under constant threat of frivolous complaints that occupy your time and provide political ammunition for people to tar you in your own community.
Moreover, if your views are in any way what might be considered “opposition” to the establishment in the state, you’ll be constantly attacked by special interests, and journalists will treat everything you do as if you’re the default villain. Social media has ramped this up to the point of fever.
The single biggest component of a solution would be to reduce the scope of government. If we didn’t try to filter so much of our social activity through the public sector, the job of governing it wouldn’t be so big and, more importantly, special interests wouldn’t have so much incentive to influence elected officials by promise or by threat.
On a lower scale would be shifting our current balance of public right-to-know laws. As a start, we should apply a bit of perspective to different positions. Does every local board, no matter how limited in authority, require the same level of disclosure as the governor? Should we really expect candidate-volunteers to become experts on the sizes of fonts for the disclosures on their postcards?
If we have a lack of viable challengers, maybe we need to give people more flexibility to learn politics on the fly instead of putting them in constant fear of what they might be missing. It’s not surprising that states dominated by the party of big government and centralized control are those that tend to freeze out competition… which ought to undermine the premise of big government and centralized control to begin with.