29 April 2006

Democracy Without Elections

Can you have a genuinely democratic system of government when people don't get to choose between competing candidates in an election? Elected officials who took office without facing an election happen to be the norm in Colorado's special districts.

Two years ago 75 percent of the elections were canceled for lack of competition, according to the Department of Local Affairs.

There are 1,300 plus special districts in Colorado, and most that do have elections hold them on the first Tuesday in May in even numbered years. As far as I known, Denver, with its unified city and county system of government does not have any, but I could be wrong. Much of the suburban metropolitan area does go to the polls on Tuesday, however, in circumstances that Peter Blake at the Rocky suggests are dubious at best, some with significant tax issues at stake.

Special districts aren't alone in a lack of interest, although they are the most acute suffers of the problem. About one in five municipal elections is likewise cancelled in Colorado for lack of candidates.

Contested primaries in races with an incumbent are rare in Colorado. And, even at the state legislative level, a remarkable number of seats go without challengers, often for the very rational reason that a seat is a safe one for one party or another.

Even when elections are held, they are often foregone conclusions. The U.S. House of Representatives returns incumbents to office with jaw breaking frequency, and the average margin of victory in House races in 2004 was 40 percentage points (i.e. a 70-30 outcome in favor of the incumbent). You can count on your fingers the number of districts where a different party was in control before and after the election in a 2004. The number of seats where the margin of victory was seven percentage points of less (i.e. closer than 54-46), was small enough that they couldn't have changed control of Congress for better or for worse. Specifically:

[T]he 2004 U.S. House election recorded an unprecedented lack of competition. Fewer than 3% (12) of the 435 races were won by a margin of less than 7%; only 10 races were won by tight margins of 5% or less. There has never been such a small number of highly competitive races in American history. . . . The average victory margin was 40, meaning the average two-party race was won by 70% to 30% of the vote. Seven of every eight (83%) U.S. House races were won by landslide margins of at least 20% in 2004. Only 23 races (5%) were won by competitive margins of less than 10%. . . . Outside of Texas [where the districts were redrawn], 397 of 403 House seats stayed with the same party.

Is it any wonder that voters tend to be indifferent to politics short of Presidential elections, and perhaps Gubinatorial elections? All too often, the voter's input is all but meaningless, either because there is no competition for a position, or because the outcome will be predictably lopsided, often due to gerrymandering. The cost of gerrymandering is not so much that it distorts the preferences of the people. In truth, the relationship between the number of seats a party wins in Congress, and its popular support, bear, at least, a rough justice relationship. Instead, the real cost is that it so saps the drama out of elections, depriving individuals of much impact on their outcomes, that they threaten the legitimacy of the electoral process itself.

This phenomena, of a system that seems designed to induce apathy, is a greater threat to democracy than the more hailed concerns about the accuracy of modern vote countings systems.

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