The Solution to RI’s Problems, Including Political Imbalance

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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.



  • Rhett Hardwick

    New Hampshire seems to be getting along fine. My info may be out of date, but it seems to me the legislature is session two months a year and reps get $100.00

    • Joe Smith

      Yes; however, there are something like 400 reps in the NH house; one for every 2500-3000 people or so. In other words, many reps in NH are running for less votes than town council or school board seats in RI. Running for many seats in NH is simply going around a few neighborhoods and hanging around the center of town.

      I don’t know how it works with that many -rep probably just less gets done (not necessarily a bad thing) especially when the time period is less.

  • ShannonEntropy

    A constant complaint of mine since I moved here nearly 40 yrs ago. My State rep [ the mighty Joe McNamara ] and senator [ Lynch-Prata ] more often than not run unopposed; and get 65-70% when there are two names on the ballot. AND they are so arrogant & unafraid of their constituents that they donut even bother to acknowledge correspondence from we hoi polloi

    My business-owner brother-in-law told us over dinner that he recently called up his reps’ offices — both Dems natch — over some State injustice and really gave *them* a piece of his mind !!

    When I asked him how much money he had donated to each last election cycle and the answer came back ‘zero’… I told him he might as well have been yelling at his cat

    • Rhett Hardwick

      When I lived in Mass, it was the same story, I got used to writing in candidates. King Kong, Clint Eastwood, Ming the Merciless, etc. (are you old enough to remember the “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip? Even at a very young age, I wondered why his girlfriend wore thigh high boots and carried a whip) Since I was registered Republican, there was always something wrong, I had to go here, or there, to file a form before I could vote.

      • ShannonEntropy

        You must be a Greatest-Gen guy:
        Terry & The Pirates ended in 1946

        Growing up in Cleveland* on the shores of Great Swamp Erie back in the 50s & 60s the Plain Dealer comics carried Milton Caniff’s subsequent strip Steve Canyon
        …& I was always a big fan. The strip kinda fell outta favor during the Vietnam War cuz of its ultra-pro-military stance

        Steve’s femme fatale was named Madame Lynx

        Caniff was also born in Ohio; and we both graduated from THE [ never fergit the ‘THE’!! ] Ohio State University

        * Cleveland a/k/a The Mistake on the Lake

        • Rhett Hardwick

          Not that old, I remember it vaguely from the late 50’s. They were still fighting the Koreans. Maybe my small town paper ran “reruns”. The girlfriend was perhaps the “Dragon Lady”, don’t remember story lines, I just remember the boots and whip. Steve Canyon has a familiar ring. Maybe it was Steve Canyon and I misremember.

          • ShannonEntropy

            I just did Google image searches for ‘Dragon Lady’ & ‘Madame Lynx’

            …and if the two aren’t the same gal, they are identical twins

    • Mike678

      What would be interesting is the demographics, for lack of a better word, of the 65-70%. The union/govt affiliated have a financial incentive to vote. As Ben stated, ‘When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.’

  • Jimmy Adams

    Term limits, term limits, term limits. . ..

    • Rhett Hardwick

      We have them, they’re called “elections”. Democracy gets the government it deserves. I always thought a good newspaper would help. Unfortunately, with the decline of newspapers, the word is out “don’t be controversial”.

    • ShannonEntropy

      SCOTUS has already ruled that term limits are unconstitutional. Altho not yet ruled on, via the 14th Amendment that ruling prolly also applies to State pols

      See: https://www.nytimes.com/1995/05/23/us/high-court-blocks-term-limits-for-congress-in-a-5-4-decision.html

      So enacting any kind of term limits would require a US constitutional amendment. Since no sitting politician is gonna vote themselves out of office, that would only happen if [ a big IF ] the proposal were prospective only i.e. exempted sitting pols

      I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen tho

  • Joe Smith

    Does every local board, no matter how limited in authority, require the same level of disclosure as the governor?

    Just for fun I checked a few people I know on a town council and a charter school board that I know for sure had conflicts of interest and/or employment with a vendor (or with the charter’s management firm). Neither listed that employment.

    I’m not sure how you rail Justin against special interests seeking influence and then want to limit the transparency for elected officials – some town and school contracts run into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. It’s not the forms, it’s the lack of oversight and then lack of real punishment in most cases for violations.

    If it means enough, the forms and filing are not the issue; it’s the schedule is designed for retired or flexible/public sector workers (or lawyers). Limit the length of the session; limit the days to say 3 days a week (one being Saturday)

    But given those (or your) suggestions wouldn’t be implemented, the GOP should be looking hard this weekend not at excuses but at a real strategy that focuses on winning and directing resources at the local level, especially as progressives set the table for infighting in the democratic party.

    PS – Wyoming’s legislature is not that contested either..

    • Justin Katz

      Well, the overriding suggestion is to reduce the scope of government so there’s less profit to be found. Be that as it may, I don’t see a contradiction in railing against special interests seeking influence while also noting that the mechanisms we use (presumably) to crack down on that activity can have adverse consequences that may outweigh the benefit. As you note, the mechanisms don’t seem to stop the behavior. Indeed, people engaged in big money and deep corruption, the incentives to find workarounds is huge, so it could be our approach is designed disproportionately to catch up people who make dumb mistakes, usually on a pretty small scale.

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