America’s two-party system in 2020 is premised on the idea of competition: Candidates run against each other. Voters go to the polls, see their options, and pick the candidates they like. If voters don’t like incumbents, they have alternatives.
Unfortunately it often doesn’t work this way.
In too many elections, Democrats fail to compete at all, leaving entire communities unorganized, and creating weakness outside those races. We’re losing elections because we’ve failed to invest in long-term candidate recruitment and instead prioritized funding flashy tools and top-of-the-ticket stars without seeing a bigger picture.
Here are some stats that should scare the shit out of you:
- According to the Reflective Democracy Campaign, in the November 2018 midterms, over half of all races were uncontested; 68 percent of those races were at the county level and 26 percent were at the state legislature level. (And, unsurprisingly, 56 percent of those candidates running without opposition were white men.)
- In 2016, 40 percent of 7,383 state legislative races were uncontested. Eighty-two percent of Georgia’s state representative races were uncontested, making the state’s legislature the least competitive in the country, but in Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Texas, 50 percent of races or more went uncontested.
- In 2017, in Macon County, IL, 120 of 174 races went either entirely uncontested or were contested by candidates without institutional support.
- In 2015, 78 percent of school board races in Washington State went uncontested. In New Jersey, more than half of the 1,528 school board seats went uncontested, and 130 of the positions had literally zero candidates.
- In 2016, in Wisconsin, only four to five percent of municipalities, regardless of population, reported two or more candidates for each board seat, and in 52 percent of communities, there were either one or zero candidates for each seat.
- In 24 of Los Angeles County’s 88 cities, elections were canceled at least once between 2004 and 2014.
- When the Tea Party flipped 63 seats and won the House of Representatives in 2010, they did so in part because Democrats left 24 Republican seats uncontested.
- In Texas, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won Republican Congressman Pete Sessions’s House district—but because Democrats didn’t field a candidate, all those people who showed up to vote for her had no alternative to Sessions to vote for.
(An important caveat: In some cases, yes, Democrats are running without opponents, too. And while as Democrats, we appreciate that, as people who love democracy, we would rather our candidates felt the need to engage with voters in meaningful ways.)
There are many reasons why all these races go uncontested; for one, structural challenges like gerrymandering make contesting elections feel working against gravity. But a more common problem is premature targeting. Local and state parties have historically provided limited resources to races whose outcomes seemed predetermined based on past election results and demographics. State parties, especially, have lacked the money and people required to contest those races, so they’ve focused on recruiting “good” candidates in what they consider “winnable” districts.
But the past few years have provided a number of sometimes painful reminders that we frequently have no idea who can win. Unexpected things happens all the time. Sometimes incumbents get indicted, or get sick, or self-immolate. Sometimes they have to drop out. Sometimes talented challengers surprise lazy incumbents, and defeat them.
Parties may reason that they don’t devote time and money to recruiting candidates because registration and expected turnout is low, so it doesn’t really matter. We call bullshit: Voting is a habit. Voters don’t show up in some of these places because, more often than not, there hasn’t been someone to vote for. If our values aren’t on the ballot, then our values don’t even have a chance of winning. Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood, has said it well in discussing Texas, but the same is true in too many states: These aren’t Republican states; they’re non-voting states. Folks have been so demoralized for so long, they just stop showing up.
Uncontested elections have perverse consequences. A 2011 study of roll-call vote participation and bill introduction and enactment found that state legislators elected in unopposed contests are less active than legislators who have to run in competitive contests. This makes sense, unfortunately. When voters have the opportunity to hold their elected officials accountable for their actions, those officials have the incentive to build records they can defend.
More immediately, leaving elections uncontested leaves votes on the table. This should be obvious, but is often ignored: Fewer competitive campaigns means less voter contact. Candidates who actually have to campaign are pushed to engage with their constituents about policies and the impact government can have. The electorate gets more informed and active, and the government better reflects what constituents want.
This matters, especially in 2020. Run for Something’s research shows that simply fielding a candidate in a race previously left uncontested increases Democratic turnout for the entire ticket by one percentage point. Extrapolating from there, a full slate of Democratic candidates for state legislature in Pennsylvania in 2016 would have closed the margin of Trump’s victory enough to trigger a mandatory recount.
These candidates can’t just be sacrificial lambs. Once we get them running, we need to resource them, so they can knock thousands of doors and hold the Republican party accountable at every level.
Run for Something aims to solve this problem. We’ve identified more than 46,000 young people who are thinking about running for local office, we’ve worked with organizations like Contest Every Race to use text messages to identify candidates for specific municipal races, and this cycle specifically, we’ve focused on the state-legislative races in key redistricting states (in partnership with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the DLCC). Ahead of the filing deadline in December, we invested more than $100,000 in recruiting candidates in Texas. (Fun fact: 25 percent of the non-incumbent Democrats running for state house came through our pipeline.)
Now, we’re helping all those folks navigate the mechanics of setting up campaigns and finding them the resources they need to succeed in 2020 and beyond. They’re knocking on doors, making calls, talking with voters about local issues, and basically functioning as super-charged field organizers who might actually get to govern if they win.
But we need to do more, especially in 2020 when turnout is likely to break records. In a handful of states, it’s too late to get on the 2020 ballot—but 39 states have filing deadlines between March 1 and July 17. Here’s what you can do to help:
- Go to runforwhat.net and find the offices you might be able to run for. We’ll follow up and help you identify what to do next.
- Post that URL on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, in your group chats, on the dark web—wherever. Promise to knock on a few doors and make a donation to anyone in your friend group who puts their name on the ballot.
- Donate right now to help fund more recruitment efforts. We’re especially keeping an eye on states like Florida and Arizona and working with our partners on the ground to identify where they need to get someone on the ballot.
If people are going to get excited about elections—and get into the habit of voting every single time like we want them to—they should have people who share their values on the ballot to cast their votes for, in 2020 and every single time thereafter.
Amanda Litman and Ross Morales Rocketto are the co-founders of Run for Something. Since launching in 2017, they have recruited more than 47,000 young people to run for office, endorsed over 950 candidates, and elected 305 across 45 states.