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Better pathways to election could help avoid one-candidate races


(June 15, 2016) — Forty years ago we could point to the sham elections of the Soviet Union and laugh. These were one-party affairs, with one candidate for each position on the ballot. Voting support ranged between 99 and 100 percent.

Now fast-forward to the upcoming legislative elections in Washington state in 2016. There are 124 legislative seats up for grabs — all 98 of the state House of Representatives seats and 26 of the 49 state Senate seats. You might think that the excitement and enthusiasm of the presidential election would trickle down to campaigns for the Legislature.

We don’t have much influence on the presidential election, and our congressional delegation is only a tiny percentage of the entire Congress, so we don’t have much leverage on public lawmaking at the federal level. But we can and do actually elect our state legislators. They are the people who make the decisions that affect us most directly on schools, roads, public health, safety and health at work, unemployment compensation, taxes and tax giveaways, and higher education, among other issues.

winning-unopposedWith that thought in mind, we should brace ourselves for highly visible and well-argued elections throughout our state. But as is turns out, in two-fifths of all these elections, either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party has failed to field candidates. So, for example, if you want to vote for a Republican candidate in the 38th District, the heart of Everett, you are out of luck. You also can’t vote for a Republican in the 21st District for position No. 1 (Mukilteo, Edmonds, and Lynnwood). Likewise, if you want to vote for a Democratic candidate for Senate in the 39th District (Darrington, Arlington, Monroe, and Sedro Wooley), you can’t.

You could make an argument that in some of these districts voters could choose among Republican candidates and in other districts, among Democratic candidates, and in some districts they could vote for a Libertarian. So perhaps there is a little choice there. But in almost a quarter of the races, there is no race at all, because there is only one candidate.

In the 38th District, position 1, you can vote for June Robinson, period. No other candidate is on the ballot. In the 39th District Senate race, you can vote for Kirk Pearson. And that’s your choice! In the 40th District (Mount Vernon, Anacortes, the San Juans, and part of Bellingham), you have no choice for the House positions. You can vote for Kristine Lytton for position one and Jeff Morris for position two. And that’s it.

The Democrats have essentially ceded Eastern Washington and the Republicans have ceded Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Edmonds and Everett.

It is no wonder that hundreds of thousands of citizens don’t bother to vote. On the issues closest to them, such as funding for education, they have no choice to make on their ballots. So why bother?

To undertake a serious campaign in a contested position, candidates have to be able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. They have to campaign non-stop for months. And then their chances are still not good, especially going up against an incumbent. So they don’t bother.

In the presidential campaign, some states are completely ignored because everyone knows they will vote for Donald Trump (Alabama), or Hillary Clinton (California). All the resources are thrown into battleground states like Ohio. Similarly, in the legislative elections in our state, the races in most of the districts are foregone conclusions, and all the campaign financing can be targeted to the battleground districts, such as the 44th District, position 1, where John Lovick, former Snohomish County executive, is running for Hans Dunshee’s old seat. Or in the 39th District, where John Koster, former Snohomish County councilmember, is trying to get back in the game.

And this speaks volumes to our democracy. The path is easiest for those who have already been there, and have the political capital to leverage in campaigns. But it is closed off for those who don’t make a lot of money, who live in the wrong district, who want to serve but can’t leverage the resources for victory. But we aren’t the Soviet Union with one-party rule. So we can figure out better pathways for elections with real choices, candidates with real differences, and a renewed commitment to making public policy in a truly representative democracy. At least we must try.


John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. John can be reached at

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