Indiana has a democracy problem

(or, why we need more Willie Browns)

Originally published on PolicyMattress

Willie Brown did something courageous this year. He ran for office.

Brown, a Gary union leader and bus driver, launched his uphill primary fight against Democratic juggernaut and 31-year incumbent Rep. Pete Visclosky. Brown lost decisively, but he provided voters in District 1 something that few other Hoosiers had on election day: a choice.

In Indiana’s Republican primary, nearly 80 percent of races went uncontested. That includes governor Mike Pence, whose approval ratings have been underwater since his debacle with the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act last year, and who might have been ripe for an intra-party challenge. But more shockingly, uncontested races determined 84 of 100 nominees for the state assembly.

Democrats fared even worse: 92 of 100 assembly seats went unchallenged. And like Republicans, Democratic voters had only one choice for governor: the uninspiring two-time nominee, John Gregg.

For a brief moment last summer, the Democratic gubernatorial race looked to be more interesting, with two strong female candidates — Superintendent for Public Instruction Glenda Ritz and State Senator Karen Tallian — declaring their candidacies. But Democrats quickly cleared the field in favor of a one-man race.

This is a worrying sign for Indiana’s democratic health. Uncompetitive elections make the primary resemble a coronation more than a contest, and fail to hold the party establishment accountable for its actions. Primaries are important. They teach parties not to be complacent, to listen to their constituents, and to respond accordingly.

Of course, some voters in uncompetitive districts will have a choice in November, when the John Greggs and Mike Pences of the world square off against each other. But many won’t even have that. In 36 of 100 statehouse districts, an uncontested primary will be followed by an uncontested general election.

Just as our market economy requires competition, so does our electoral system. Without it, those dissatisfied with the status quo cannot voice their dissatisfaction on election day. And just as an uncompetitive market results in corrupt and inefficient monopolies, an uncompetitive electoral system results in a corrupt and self-perpetuating party machine.

We need to fix our elections. In the short-term, that means encouraging primary challenges, especially from those groups less represented in government — racial and religious minorities, women, the young, and the LGBTQ community.

In the long-term, though, recruiting challengers isn’t enough. We must demand that public officials do what they least want: to act against their own self-interest and make sweeping changes to the system that elected them.

That means public financing, to diminish the overwhelming spending power of modern-day party bosses. It means an end to partisan gerrymandering, which creates artificial Republican or Democratic monopolies. It also means treating suffrage as a universal right.

Each of these goals has been accomplished in other states across the country. But to accomplish them in Indiana, we need to step up and demand it.

One thing is certain. When the next election comes, we should all hope that Indiana has many more Willie Browns.

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