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Public Interests

Uncontested Contests
By Gail Collins
November 2, 1999

Happy Election Day, America!

I don't know about you, but here in New York City we have a lot of interesting decisions to make today, on issues ranging from charter revision to the identity of the next Staten Island district attorney. Voter participation is expected to climb into the double digits.

This is an off year for New York politics. But in Kentucky they're having an election for governor, and the incumbent, Paul Patton, still appears to be worried that nobody will show up to vote. Mr. Patton is being challenged by a Republican named Peppy Martin, who made a splash the other day by saying that the governor's wife's first husband had been "assassinated." (The Republican chairwoman apologized on behalf of the party.) Voters who find Ms. Martin a little intense have a third option in the Reform slate, whose gubernatorial hopeful likes to introduce the candidate for lieutenant governor as "Kathy Lyons, my running mate and concealed-deadly-weapon-permitee."

Personally, I'd rather be voting in Mississippi, where the polls show a really close race to succeed Gov. Kirk Fordice, who has been involved in an ongoing struggle to dump his wife of 44 years and marry the woman who had been his girlfriend in high school. Need I tell you that this has turned out to be a family-values election? Each of the gubernatorial candidates has been vying to prove that he is the least likely to take a state plane to the beach for a date with his inamorata or get involved with a struggle over how to evict his spouse from the governor's mansion.

Now that's the kind of issue that could liven up a political campaign, but those of us who live in safe districts dominated by one party hardly ever get that sort of excitement. I remember one year in which our Congressman's main challenger was a convicted arsonist, but the more typical story is Venerable Incumbent vs. Underfunded Hopeless Newcomer.

I want to live in a place like Virginia Beach, Va., which is presently the site of a very hot race for the state legislature. "I've gotten at least three hold-for-a-message-from-the-governor calls and three pieces of mail a day," says Karen Jones Squires, a local voter. The two candidates in her district are expected to spend up to a million dollars to win a job that pays $18,000 a year.

Now when it comes to state legislatures, I am extremely well informed -- i.e., I know the name of the guy who represents my district. But all my expertise goes for naught, because in my neighborhood the incumbent legislator always wins, frequently through the cunning tactic of being the only name on the ballot.

That's pretty typical. The real dirty little secret of American democracy is how many of our elections are really nothing of the sort, because the districts are drawn to give one party or the other an enormous advantage. About 80 members of Congress had no major party rival last year, including 18 of the 23 House seats in Florida.

In Virginia, where 8 of 11 Congressional races were uncontested last year, the Democrats are now in danger of losing their control over the state legislature. That would mean the Republicans could redraw the district lines next year so more of their candidates could win the meaningless, uncontested contests. "The entire future of Virginia will be decided in these elections," hyperventilated Gov. James Gilmore.

Actually, even the battle for gerrymandering rights is fixed in most Virginia districts -- 61 out of 100 seats in the House of Delegates are basically uncontested, and almost all the others are shoo-ins. If I lived there, I'd be really disappointed if my neighbor got to decide the entire future of Virginia while I got stuck with a race with only one name on the ballot. But people seem pretty philosophical. "Four years ago our senator worked hard to win, and the sentiment is that it's nice to see that this year he doesn't have to spend his time and money getting re-elected," said Robert Rummells, a Virginia Beach Republican.

Ms. Jones Squires, on the other hand, has had enough attention. "It was interesting for a short while but now it's annoying," she said. "I feel like writing in somebody."

That's understandable for a person who's been trapped in a perpetual phone loop with Governor Gilmore. but I want power. In my next life, I want to be reincarnated as an undecided voter in a swing district.

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