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USA Today

No Contest, No Choice
November 3, 1999

Coming soon to a ballot box near you, courtesy of both Republicans and Democrats: the no-contest, no-choice election. In fact, as more voters learned in Tuesday's off-year voting, it has already arrived.

While politicians talk up the virtues of democracy and voter participation, the hard-nosed reality they pursue is quite the contrary: The best election is no election, or at least no opponent. And the best turnout is a low turnout - of opposition voters.

Through two devices, insiders are getting more brazen in pursuit of those goals:

Gerrymandering to maximize the number of safe, one-party seats. In Virginia Tuesday, 61% of state legislative races had only one major-party candidate. Fewer than 10% of the seats were regarded as remotely competitive. The legislature itself fixed it that way, drawing district boundaries to group Republicans with Republicans and Democrats with Democrats and leaving as little as possible to chance.

That happens in nearly every state: The politicians contrive to give themselves and their colleagues maximum job security while depriving the voters of meaningful choice.

Nationally, 41% of state legislative seats were uncontested last year; in Massachusetts, 70% were uncontested. Of the 435 seats in the U.S. House, scarcely 50 - fewer than one in eight - appear competitive going into 2000.

Ducking uphill battles to suppress turnout. House GOP campaign chief Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., talked openly of discouraging Republicans from challenging popular Democrats for local office Tuesday. The hope: Democrats would stay home, improving Republicans' chances in state legislative races. If successful, he plans to copy the strategy nationally.

Florida Democrats did the same when they faced a tight gubernatorial race in 1994. Florida Republicans returned the favor in 1998.

Thus, the voters' right to a meaningful choice is thwarted. Nonpartisan control of districting could end insider gerrymandering. Public financing of campaigns could make it impossible for party bosses to squelch honest challenges. But without public pressure, it won't happen. Elections will be left to politicians, and they're too important for that.

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