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Ed O’Neill: Shocking 52% of Assembly unopposed

Published: September 21, 2014 01:00 AM

Rhode Island State House

BY ED O’NEILL

The need for change is perhaps the most common theme among candidates heading into an election — a forward movement from where we are, to the promise of a better place.

But what does change look like?

If political change is signaled by an influx of new faces in the state legislature, then Rhode Island is looking ahead to a continuation of the same old, same old.

In the 2014 state elections, which provide the fundamental mechanism to make changes in our political system, 52 percent of the seats in the General Assembly will go unchallenged. In other words, more than half of Rhode Island’s lawmakers will remain on the job before a single vote is cast.

Fifty-two percent of legislative districts defaulting to incumbents is an astounding statistic for any functioning democratic system. The numbers offer a sobering readout of the lack of change on Smith Hill.

The prognosis for systemic change in our political culture worsens with a closer look at the statistics. Of the 52 percent unchallenged races in 2014, 96.6 percent are in districts controlled by Democrats. That is, of the 59 incumbents running unopposed in 2014 (39 House, 20 Senate), 57 are Democrats, which again puts Rhode Island on track for one of the most lopsided legislatures in the country.

In fact, over the past 20 years, Democrats have held a House and Senate majority in every session, making Rhode Island’s legislature the most continually dominated (by Democrats) and least competitive legislature in the country. Going into the 2014 elections, our state’s General Assembly is 89 percent Democrat which is very close to the top ranking in the country for most uneven legislature.

In a functioning democracy, the notion that one political party could maintain a 20-year super majority stranglehold on a legislature seems highly improbable, in large part because our system ultimately has the ability to self-correct. There are checks and balances that create competitiveness and strengthen the public connection. Political parties need to win, and lose. There needs to be a respectful back and forth among legislators with Election Day consequences as a constant backdrop.

The sustained Democratic Party dominance of Rhode Island’s legislature is a political anomaly, especially considering that statewide, there are more registered independent/non-affiliated voters than Democrats. In May 2013, 49.5 percent of voters here were unaffiliated/independent (358,045) versus 40.1 percent Democrats (290,397).

For would-be lawmakers outside of the Democratic Party, the prospect of becoming effective participants in the General Assembly has become more and more of a daunting proposition. The percentage of unchallenged races in Democratic districts has increased over recent elections, and its high point in 2014 is an undeniable indicator that the overwhelming imbalance in Rhode Island’s legislature is continuing unabated.

Ironically, at a time when the call for change resonates most clearly across our state, Rhode Islanders again find themselves stuck at the starting gate, looking ahead to what seems all too familiar.

But in spite of Rhode Island’s partisan political entrenchment in the General Assembly, there is always the promise of change. After this election, we will see the end of the master lever, or straight party voting system, which is traditionally a mechanism that works in favor of the stronger party. If real change begins with a first step, then removing the master lever is a very positive opener. Beyond that, our system of politics needs to allow for growth and generational change, in the direction of healthy competitiveness and a broader representation of people living in Rhode Island.

We have a huge resource in bright, accomplished and well-educated citizens who could make a real contribution to the future of our state. New candidates in future elections, with fresh ideas and experiences, will ultimately be the agents of change in our system. They need to be encouraged now, and know they have a chance to participate in shaping a more even playing field.

 

Sen. Ed O’Neill is the only independent member of the Rhode Island General Assembly. He represents Lincoln, North Providence and North Smithfield.