Most Rhode Islanders will turnout this Election Day with an eye on the big races. While I don’t want to downplay the importance of the vote for Governor, the reality is that the most important vote for the majority of Rhode Islanders will basically have already been cast. Out of 113 seats, 83 will face no competition at the polls except for a write-in candidate — the highest write-in tends to be Donald Duck.
That’s right, a fictional pants-less cartoon duck is likely to be the opposition candidate in most General Assembly races.
Now, the lazy reasoning for this would be that Rhode Island’s General Assembly is controlled by Democrats, they like other Democrats, they draw the district lines, they make it easy for Democrats to get elected. While I’m not going to argue that you’re wrong, I am going to point to evidence and suggest that the General Assembly is controlled by incumbents, incumbents like easy races, incumbents draw the district lines, and they make it easy for incumbents to retain office. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat doesn’t really matter; the incumbent advantage protects both roughly equally.
That’s a very passive sentence, so I want to suggest a complicating problem: the incumbent advantage is not an accidental feature, it is a designed feature. Every time the Assembly hires Kimball Brace, they are effectively designing their advantage. Brace will draw districts that maximize the advantages of incumbents.
Now, the typical answer to this is to take the control of redistricting out of the hands of the General Assembly and give it to a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission tasked with redrawing districts. However, this has not had a noticeable impact on competitiveness.
Iowa (uniquely) has adopted a computer-program guided system that ignores everything except for population data. While this has produced better competition than we have here in Rhode Island, today close to half of its General Assembly members are being reelected with no general election opponent. Iowa is also kind of a swing state in U.S. presidential elections, which is something to think about. There are also issues with relying on computer programs.
We also need to consider that competitiveness is just one of many values we need to balance when creating districts. But for now, with 74% of General Assembly members about to win reelection for doing nothing more than stay alive since at least September 9th, let’s suggest that is the most important value.
We simply cannot address the problem of competitiveness without making a value call. And I think that call should be to value a better — multiparty — democracy. How we get there matters. But it means setting aside some of our assumptions for how government and politics should look. I’ll leave it there and expand on this later.