Most people view competition as a good thing. In the world of the free market, businesses competing for land, labour, capital, and profit helps ensures many things: services are offered fairly, employees are given just compensation, and customers get a high quality product for a reasonable price. However, when it comes to the issue of political competition, I regret to say that our nation is in a woeful state.
Later this week, voters will head to the polls in Great Britain to select members of the House of Commons. Presently, twelve parties have seats in that chamber. Moving across the channel, we find varying numbers of parties in other legislatures. For example, France’s National Assembly has seven political parties and Germany’s Bundestag boasts five. Shifting over to Asia, we find that India, often billed as the world’s largest democracy, holds an astounding twenty-five parties in its Lok Sabha, and Japan’s National Diet has ten different political parties. Looking at the neighbors of the United States, Canada has six parties in their Parliament and Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies holds seven. Quite a lot of choices, wouldn’t you say?
However, as you undoubtedly know, only two parties hold seats in either the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The situation is the same in Virginia as there is no member of the General Assembly outside of the Republican and Democratic parties in both the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate.
Why is it that we typically have only two choices in this country, and, even worse, often are faced with candidates running unopposed? Well, part of the problem deals with gerrymandering. Given that in Virginia we allow legislators to draw their own districts, effectively choosing which voters they wish to represent, they usually do their best to gather citizens who are of their same political persuasion. Perhaps you’ve never seen them before, but here are maps of the House of Delegates and Senate districts. I should note that I did not create these images and unfortunately, the person or organization who crafted them did not mark them so they could be given proper credit.
As you can clearly see, some of the districts are extremely peculiarly shaped, avoiding certain areas, lumping others together, and dividing cities and counties for maximum political advantage. As one example, the 24th Senate district, pictured in mustard yellow slightly north of the center of the state, will be holding a Republican primary in about a month. As you can see, this district stretches from the West Virginia border, jumps over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and encompasses some of the people of Culpeper, combining voters from unrelated communities separated by over a hundred miles. It should be noted that prior to redistricting the 24th was more compact, remaining almost entirely on one side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, as the incumbent, Senator Emmett Hanger (R-24), faced a relatively close race from a challenger in the southern part of the district in 2007, the lines were redrawn in such a way to exclude this territory to make certain that his previous opponent, Scott Sayre, had been gerrymandered out of the 24th.
Another issue which squelches competition is the fact that Virginia only recognizes two political parties. As such, if a candidate from outside these parties wishes to run, he or she must collect signatures to appear on the general election ballot while the Republican and Democratic candidates do not have to face this hurdle. In addition, the law states that if other candidates jump through the hoops to become eligible, their names must appear on the ballot after both the Republican and Democrat. In case you are wondering, research has shown, all other factors being equal, that being listed first on the ballot does provide a small electoral advantage. Also, while the Republican and Democratic Parties are allowed to hold nomination primaries, paid for by the Virginia taxpayers, no other political party or group can do so. Not the Libertarians, not the Greens, not the Constitution Party, nor anyone else.
As a way to help promote political competition in Virginia, prior to the 2015 legislative session I approached both my delegate, Tony Wilt (R-Rockingham) and senator, Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) with an idea to help level the political playing field. My proposal was that each candidate, regardless of party or lack thereof, would be required to collect the same number of signatures to appear on the ballot. In this way, the Republican and Democratic candidates would have to follow the same requirements as everyone else. Unfortunately, both my representatives declined.
In the 2015 session, two legislators proposed bills that would expand political competition. Delegate Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), sponsored HB 1463 which would decrease the threshold for official party recognition in Virginia from 10% of the statewide vote to 4%. That bill was defeated in committee and, although there was no recorded vote, when I investigated further I was told that Delegate Steve Landes (R-Augusta) was the person who killed it. Senator John Edwards (D-Roanoke) offered SB 766 which would decrease the signature threshold for independent and third party statewide candidates to make the ballot from 10,000 to 5,000. This bill met a similar fate, dying in committee at the hands of Republican legislators.
At the same time, two legislators offered bills that would restrict political participation even further. Senator Mark Obenshain’s SB 1060 and Delegate Steve Landes’ HB 1518, are pieces of legislation that would mandate party registration. Although one can legitimately make the claim that only Republicans and Democrats should be able to select their own party nominees, when you combine that idea with the fact that districts have been heavily gerrymandered to prevent competition, other parties are more or less forbidden to be recognized, and that taxpayers would be forced to pay for party contests that they wouldn’t be allowed to participate in, it is easy to realize this kind of legislation would only diminish political choices further. Fortunately, both bills were defeated. Although the Libertarian Party has increased activity in Virginia, as witnessed in the 2013 and 2014 elections, and would likely draw more from the Republican voter base than the Democratic, the simple fact that some legislators would work to stifle competition for their own political advantage is truly horrifying.
As an additional barrier to allowing for greater political choices, there is the issue of the debates. Whether at the presidential level, or, as was the case with the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial and the 2014 Virginia senatorial, some candidates have not been allowed to participate in the debates. In 2013, both Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli worked together to prevent Libertarian Robert Sarvis from taking part in “their debates”. And, in 2014, Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Ed Gillespie agreed to continue the political charade by refusing to appear on the stage with Sarvis. This type of exclusion is utterly disastrous for competition, will ensure that most voters will falsely believe that they only have two choices, and thus will make certain that they will never have more than two options.
Several months ago, Our America Initiative created a video outlining this troubling situation:
As illustrated by these various examples in Virginia and nationwide, this country has a serious problem with a lack of political competition not found in other representative democracies. Due to a series of institutionalized rules, laws, and agreements, politicians have gravely limited competition to two parties or less in order to maintain their own power base. As such, unlike the case with the free market, legislators and political parties have gamed the system and thus have little incentive to improve by following their supposed principles or listening to voters. After all, when you only allow people a choice between Coke and Pepsi, the public will never know the flavour of RC Cola…or Dr. Pepper…and certainly nothing as radical as Peach Snapple.
Society, philosophy, and life in general has demonstrated that competition is exceedingly positive for the individual in other facets of life like business, religion, and education. Shouldn’t we apply that principle to politics as well?