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Recent Supreme Court decisions have kicked issues like abortion and greenhouse gas regulation down to the state level, making Georgia’s statehouse elections in November even more critical for voters seeking a say.
But for over half of the legislative races, Georgia voters will have only one option–either a Democrat or a Republican, according to an Atlanta Civic Circle tally of primary winners from Secretary of State’s office data. Fully 123 of the state’s 236 house and senate races offer voters only one candidate.
Of the candidates who’ll be running uncontested in November, 68 are Republicans and 55 are Democrats. Many Democratic voters in the north Georgia mountains and the state’s southern plains will not have a chance to challenge Republican primary winners at the polls in November, and Atlanta-area Republicans are in the same boat.
Democrats often run unchallenged in Atlanta and its inner south and southeast suburbs, as well as in cities like Macon and Savannah and some parts of middle Georgia where the black share of population is relatively high.
Republicans tend to dominate the mountains, some of Atlanta’s more far-flung suburbs and parts of south and southeast Georgia, where the white share of population is relatively high.
That leaves battlegrounds in places like Gwinnett, Walton and Henry counties and neighboring areas, as well as areas outside Savannah and Macon.
Gerrymandering and regionalism
Uncontested elections happen for two main reasons–gerrymandering and regional self-sorting, according to political experts. Uncontested elections are to some extent a natural result of human behavior, because people who vote the same way tend to flock together, but political parties also play a role through gerrymandering.
“Gerrymandering plays a crucial role in the number of uncontested elections,” said Daniel Franklin, an emeritus political science professor at Georgia State University. That’s when state legislatures draw electoral district boundaries to favor the party in power, whether Republican or Democratic.
“In defending the draft Constitution, James Madison said in Federalist No. 10 that no man would be a judge in his own cause,” Franklin said, but he noted that is precisely what happens with gerrymandering. “State legislators draw their own district boundaries. Of course, they will do that in their own interest.”
“Our democracy would be healthier and stronger if every race were a meaningful contest between two competing camps,” said GSU political science professor Jeffrey Lazarus, but he does not foresee an end to gerrymandering any time soon, despite the practice’s many critics.
People also tend to live near other people with similar backgrounds or political party affiliations, which can create single-party districts that are either majority Democratic or Republican, Franklin said.
“It used to be that sorting was generally along racial and class lines. Now, racial sorting is still there, but less prominent. Sorting now is more likely to be along ideological lines,” he said.
Uncontested election risks
Gerrymandering and regional self-sorting are big reasons why uncontested elections are pervasive, both in Georgia and nationally, but the difficulty of fundraising for potential challengers with low odds of getting elected is also a factor.
A high concentration of uncontested elections calls into question how much freedom of electoral choice some U.S. voters actually have, and it risks creating a political environment where legislators shirk their lawmaking duties to voters. But Franklin said the United States still has a functioning democracy.
“The Soviet Union had regular elections–so does Iran. They are certainly not democracies. It takes more than elections to have a democracy. You must have a genuine choice, otherwise elections are just for show,” he explained. “We are certainly not Iran or the Soviet Union. In our federal system, elections are competitive at some level. [And] in Georgia, statewide elections have become quite competitive.”
In electoral districts that are heavily Democratic or Republican, many potential candidates from the opposing party decide not to run because they already know they’ll lose, said University of Georgia political science professor Trey Hood, an expert in Southern elections.
“A lot of people won’t run against incumbents because it’s not easy to defeat an entrenched [one],” Hood said. In a district that skews heavily Republican or Democratic, he added, a candidate from the opposing party will likely have a difficult time garnering support and raising money.
Political parties also don’t have much incentive to fund candidates in districts where the party’s voters are heavily in the minority, Hood said. “If you do give them resources, it’s still likely they’re going to lose–and those are resources that are being diverted from other races that are more competitive.”
“The real conversation might be in the primary for those districts,” he added–that is, in the primary for the district’s dominant party.
Uncontested elections can create powerful incumbent legislators who, unchallenged, may shirk their lawmaking duties, Franklin cautioned. Even more concerning, he added, they’re likely to become less representative of their constituents if they no longer think they need to listen to voters to get reelected.
However, Hood said, even in uncontested districts lawmakers are still keeping future competition in mind–as a threat in their party’s primary, at least, if not from the opposing party.
“These lawmakers are acutely aware that they could be challenged in an upcoming election if they do shirk their responsibilities too much,” Hood said. “We’ve asked legislators in surveys, and, usually, their number one goal is reelection. Even if they’re not being contested, they’re still thinking about what their constituents are thinking.”