Perhaps one of the most counterintuitive hallmarks in American politics is the inverse trend between growing public dissatisfaction with government and the high incumbent re-election rate. Over 97 percent of Congress was re-elected last year in spite of growing anti-incumbent sentiment.
Incumbency has many perks. In many states, one such perk is an election process with a high barrier to entry. Costly signature requirements (often only required for independent and ‘un-recognized’ political parties) coupled with short deadlines are frequent targets of criticism in states where ballot access is primarily reserved for Democrats and Republicans.
One prime example of high incumbency rates and low competition is Texas.
Just one of 36 congressional races in Texas was considered competitive in 2016. In the Texas legislature, more than half of lawmakers were elected without facing a challenger in November, according to Texas' secretary of state. Moreover, nearly 70 percent of Texas incumbents did not face a challenger in the primary election either. As a result, Texas is in the bottom quartile of states when it comes to election competitiveness nationwide.
Carly Rose Jackson, State Director for Texans for Voter Choice, argues that a lack of competition in elections could ultimately lead to a lack of representation.
“When candidates have no competition, they have no reason to go out and win over voters,” Jackson said in an interview for IVN. “They have no reason to talk to voters and find out what’s really affecting them in their daily lives.”
That's why Texans for Voter Choice is currently lobbying the Texas legislature to revamp the state’s ballot access regime to give voters more meaningful choices at the ballot box. The reform coalition includes numerous organizations including the League of Independent Texas Voters and several minor parties like the Green, Libertarian, and Constitution parties.
For most Texas offices, non-major party candidates are required to submit signatures amounting to 5 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election for that office; none of which can be from a voter who participated in the primary election and signature gathering can only take place after the publicly-funded primary election.
"When you take away the choice of that tiny first step of getting involved in our self-government and in the process, by only having one candidate on the ballot, it really defeats the purpose of elections," said Jackson
Texans for Voter Choice aims to increase electoral competitiveness with the Texas Voter Choice Act. The act, now in the Texas House under HB 3068, does multiple things to make running for office more accessible:
- Caps petition signature requirements to 10,000 for statewide office;
- Allows for instant online signature verification and unifies the signature submission process; and
- Eliminates unnecessary filing requirements.
Texas' legislative session ends on May 29 and Jackson says she's optimistic that the Texas Voter Choice Act will be a positive step to making the state's elections more accessible and representative.
A hearing on HB 3068 would be a major victory for Texans for Voter Choice, but even if the act doesn't become law this session, Jackson says a win would also mean “making more people aware of how these ballot access rules can really affect the choices and the conversation around the elections."