KGOU

Volume Of Uncontested Lawmaker Seats 'Not The Best Thing For Our Community'

Nov 3, 2014

While most of the candidates on Tuesday’s ballot have been knocking doors, making phone calls and earning votes for weeks now, several state lawmakers are running unopposed and have quieter campaigns.

Incumbency Advantages

When Republican State Senator David Holt set out earlier this month to knock doors with his two kids, Maggie and George, he wasn’t trying to get his name out. 

He’s helping out Republican state House Representative Jason Nelson that covers the same district the Northwest Oklahoma City metro. Nelson actually drew an opponent. Holt says that race is pretty close, and he had the time. 

“My life now, day-to-day, even though this is an election year for me is much like my life would be in a different year,” Holt said.

“I am, ostensibly up for reelection this year, but I had no one file against me, so I was basically reelected in April when filing closed at 5 p.m. on Friday and I had no opposition,” he said.

“There are no happier people at the legislature than an incumbent who has made it through the filing deadline without drawing an opponent,” said David Blatt from the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based advocacy organization.  

When you go to the polls tomorrow, you may notice the lack of state legislators’ names. Only half of registered voters will choose state senators this year. And only one-third of voters will cast ballots for house representatives. The others have already been chosen, either in uncontested elections or in the primaries. And Blatt says that isn’t a true representation of voters’ opinions.

“I think if you ask Oklahomans are they satisfied with their state legislature, I'm not sure that you would get two-thirds who are saying that they are satisfied,” he said.

An 'Insurmountable Challenge'

There’s a lot of reasons why so many lawmakers didn’t draw opponents this year. Campaigning is time consuming, it requires constant dedication, and it’s expensive. Posters, campaign consultants and tv ads, those all cost money.

“For most people, that simply is a daunting, insurmountable challenge,” Blatt said. 

Zachary Knight understands the battles a legislative challenger faces. He works with Oklahomans for Ballot Access Reform, a group aiming to eliminate the high bars to entry for ballot items, but he also ran for state representative in 2010 against Republican Scott Martin from Cleveland County when he saw nobody else challenge the incumbent.

“He filed to run for office on Tuesday, nobody filed against him. So I checked on Wednesday. Again, nobody ran against him, and I just thought, ‘That's not right. Nobody’s going to run against this guy unless I do. I'm the only one who really cares,’” Knight said.

Knight lost, but he doesn’t regret running. In fact, he considered another campaign this year, but a full-time job and possible move got in the way. He says it shouldn’t just be up to him to change things though. The state legislature and judges need to step up. 

“Oklahoma's constitution says that all elections should be free and equal, and we have a lot of things standing in the way of that,” Knight said.

State Senator Holt agrees with Knight. This is Holt’s second term in the Senate. Back in 2010, his race was settled in the primaries, so has never been on November’s general election ballot.

“I will now have served potentially 8 years without ever answering a Democrat or an Independent voter, and I don't necessarily believe that's the best thing for our community,” Holt said.

Holt can see how our Oklahoma democracy seems broken.

But uncontested seats don’t happen just at the state level. U.S. House Representative Jim Bridenstine was reelected without opposition for his second term starting next year.

-----------------------------------

KGOU relies on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.