After moving to Florida a few years ago, one of the first things I did was request an absentee ballot. When the ballot arrived, I spotted an error. So, I phoned my county supervisor of elections.
“I think you made a mistake,” I told her. “The race for state representative is missing from my ballot!”
“That’s no mistake,” she replied. “That race was canceled because no one was willing to run against the incumbent.”
A canceled election? “What is this, North Korea?” I wondered at the time. I had never heard of such nonsense. I thought the democratic process gave people options to pick the best candidate. As I dug deeper, I realized noncompetitive elections aren’t merely a problem in America. They’re an epidemic.
In recent years, between 33 and 40 percent of all state legislative races in America have featured just one major-party candidate – typically an incumbent – running uncontested. In some states, like Georgia, the number is as high as 80 percent. Incumbents win just by having a pulse and getting their names on the ballot.
At the federal level, the situation isn’t better. Around 10 percent of all House of Representatives races every two years are uncontested, locking more than 30 million people out of democracy. A far greater number of races don’t feature credible challengers.
In 2016, Ballotpedia rated just 23 of 435 U.S. House contests as competitive. In 2018, an election year advertised as a “wave,” the number of competitive races jumped to 82 of 435. Democratic elections are working in fewer than 20 percent of U.S. House races, even in the most competitive election years.
Of course, entrenched politicians never miss an opportunity to defend this status quo.
“We have term limits,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2017. “They’re called elections.”
Behind McConnell’s statement is a dangerous and false assumption: that the American people have chosen this Congress and now have to sleep in the bed we’ve made. As anti-gerrymandering activists are fond of pointing out: Politicians choose their voters and not the other way around.
The Congress we see today is not a product of democratic norms, but of incumbents using monopoly behavior to shape and manipulate the electorate.
First, incumbents guarantee themselves a constant flow of campaign cash by catering to the funders. Less than one half of 1 percent of Americans give more than $200 to candidates, political parties or political action committees. Experts tell us this weakens representation. According to a study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities, the opinions of the bottom 90 percent of income earners in America have a near-zero impact on public policies advanced by Congress. The views of the economic elite – the funders – do have an impact. A significant one.
This is intuitively true. When a lawmaker’s motive changes from public service to self-service – i.e. fundraising to be re-elected – his or her behavior in office will adapt to that goal.
Special interests seize on this opportunity by rolling out the gravy train. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “Political action committees have one overriding mandate: get the most bang for the buck. To maximize their dollars, nearly all PACs – particularly those of business groups – give the overwhelming proportion of their campaign dollars to incumbents.”
Campaign cash builds an artificial wall around incumbents, more impenetrable than anything Donald Trump could imagine. Qualified people who might otherwise vie for congressional seats – activists, small-business owners, teachers, health care professionals, et al. – most often choose not to run for office, rather than fight a losing battle to dethrone an incumbent.
In a nation of nearly 330 million people, we are often told that only 535 possess the knowledge and expertise needed to serve in Congress. “Wait your turn” is a common refrain thrown at young people with fresh ideas and a desire to serve. Make no mistake: What you are hearing is nothing more than a tactic. It was designed by the incumbent racket to protect its power and chill competition.
As a result, Congress doesn’t look like America. It is disproportionately old, white and male. White men make up less than 40 percent of the U.S. population, yet they account for 60 percent of the House and 71 percent of the Senate. Congress still hasn’t caught up to the diversity of our society, because too many of its members were elected in a different era and remain entrenched.
Getting money out of politics will fix some of these problems, but incumbents will still retain advantages that make them nearly impossible to dislodge. Just by possessing the title of “Congressman,” an individual can get the media to run his re-election campaign, covering every press release and new initiative while affording no such opportunity to a challenger.
Incumbents may also invoke the “congressional franking privilege,” which allows them to send campaign-style mailers to voters on the taxpayers’ dime, under the pretext of “informing constituents.”
In a majority of congressional races, the incumbent spends more money on taxpayer-funded mail than the challenger spends on his or her entire campaign. In other words, the deck is stacked and the game is rigged.
The only way to restore fairness to this broken system – and ensure a level playing field – is competitive elections. Open seats produce competitive elections and open seats are produced by term limits.
Congressional term limits act as an antitrust act for politicians, breaking up an incumbent monopoly and replacing it with competition. When seats are open, barriers to entry collapse and more candidates run. This helps new voices emerge while creating the type of participatory democracy our nation deserves.
Term limits have already revitalized democracy at the state level. According to the Institute on Money in State Politics, states with term limits have more contested and competitive elections. Michigan, the state with the tightest term limits in the nation, is also the only state with 100 percent of its elections contested every two years.
Remember that quote from McConnell? A more appropriate line might be: “We’ll have competitive elections once we have term limits.”
Studies show that term limits give voters more choice at the ballot box because – this might shock you – more candidates run when they believe they can win. Our best and brightest citizens no longer have to wait for an incumbent to retire, die, or go to prison before getting the chance to serve.
Term limits would also make Congress more representative. New research from Samantha Pettey of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts shows that states with term limits have a rate of female candidate emergence 33 percent higher than their non-term-limits peers. When term limits are present, more women run and they win.
Finally, term limits protect our democracy from the influence of lobbyists and special interests. While a myth has persisted for many years that term limits help lobbyists, this couldn’t be further from the truth. We can prove it by following the money. There have been hundreds of term limits campaigns initiated by citizens at all levels of government. In each and every one, lobbyists and their clients contribute to whichever side is working to prevent, weaken or abolish term limits. They know term limits knock the gravy train off the rails by disrupting their cozy relationships with incumbents.
The American people of both parties understand the time has come for term limits. High-profile congressional hearings are basically commercials for this issue. When hearings air on TV, the words “term limits” always trend on Google, as people ask why our representation is so terrible. Millennials send tweets like “How can that senator regulate Facebook when he doesn’t understand computers?”
In recent years, reports have revealed that a D.C. pharmacist routinely delivers medication to Capitol Hill that treats Alzheimer’s. One study from U.C. Berkeley indicated that possessing power for too long can actually cause brain damage. The evidence is not on career politicians’ side. It is damning.
A recent poll by McLaughlin and Associates showed that congressional term limits have support from 82 percent of Americans, including 89 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of Independent voters.
The political elite seek to protect a broken system; they don’t like term limits. But the American people absolutely do. And it is our voice that matters most in this debate.