More than a quarter of the Florida Legislature was reelected recently without a single vote being cast.
Is that bad? A lot of people might see it as a win for voters in these divided times — no nasty jabs, no dark money, no barrage of demonizing ads. Easy-peasy. Just a bunch of politicians elected without fuss, long before the Aug. 23 primary or the Nov. 8 general election.
But allowing all those seats to be filled without voters having any kind of a choice actually is terrible for democracy. And it shows just how badly the political parties have failed us.
This isn’t only a state issue, either — though, sadly, it has been a trend in state legislatures in recent years. It’s also happening locally, in Miami-Dade County. For example, former Miami Beach Commissioner Micky Steinberg won a County Commission seat this month when the filing deadline passed and she remained the only person running to succeed term-limited Sally Heyman, who endorsed Steinberg.
Meet your new commissioner! You didn’t have to lift a finger, voters.
This is not a knock on any specific candidate or party, nor are we saying that these unelected-yet-elected officials aren’t worthy of the office they won. Steinberg, for instance, told the Editorial Board that she campaigned for over a year, hosting events and knocking on doors to meet residents.
“I never took my campaign for granted and I believe it’s because of this hard work and earning the support of the community that I was elected without opposition,” she said.
That may well be. But still, having a choice is a basic tenet of democracy — a system that is looking ever more fragile in the United States as we learn more about Jan. 6 and the efforts of a sitting president, Donald Trump, to undermine the results of an election that didn’t go his way.
On July 4 every year, we celebrate the passage of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of an independent nation. This year, it no longer feels like something we can take for granted.
What can we do? Let’s start by working to preserve the idea that a healthy debate among a variety of candidates is a critical way to strengthen democracy. Forums, events, debates — and yes, even Editorial Board interviews and recommendations — all help citizens make informed choices in the voting booth and encourage them to take part in choosing who represents them.
If there’s only one candidate, none of that happens. We get whomever the political apparatus — in Florida, that means Republicans — decrees is best for us. Hope you’re hungry, voters. Florida just served up a heaping helping of “no choice.”
There’s another plus when you have more than one candidate. The process of running against a well-informed opponent can make both candidates better — more aware of issues and communities, more interested in compromise, better at voicing the concerns of their constituents. The sometimes brutal public process of running for office allows voters to see how candidates bear up under the spotlight of debates or forums. They get to hear candidates articulate their views and defend their positions.
You might say none of this is important. The incumbent will probably win. Why bother? But there’s value in making your representative face you. To them, your indifference is license to do what they want. Talk to them, whether in person or through email or other communication, and push them to break them out of their insider mentality. And for those seeking office, talking to constituents — especially in person and especially when asking for their votes — makes it lot harder to brush off their needs later on.
These points aren’t new. And yet a raft of politicians got into office the other day without an opponent. So let’s put the issue in terms that Miami, with all of its diversity, understands all too well: Having a choice over who represents us in government is what distinguishes democracy from authoritarian governments. It‘s that basic.
Not a game
Elections aren’t a football game where you cheer because “your team” won. That’s the behavior of a child who doesn’t understand what’s at stake. For people who fled an authoritarian regime, pretending elections are a game is a luxury they know we cannot afford.
No, elections are the structure that holds up the entire democratic system. And local elections — for the person who represents you in Tallahassee or on the County Commission or in your town hall — are where democracy starts.
Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor emerita at the University of South Florida and veteran political analyst, told the Editorial Board that high-profile races at the top of the ticket, for president or governor, drive up voter turnout, “so you don’t see the real danger” that lack of choice for other offices can pose.
On a more positive note, she said the increase in political activism that she has been seeing lately, especially on the local level, is generally a plus for democracy because it means more people are motivated to participate in the political process.
“Local government is the genesis of democracy. It’s the beginning point,” she said.
Trust is at stake
At a time when distrust of American institutions has reached what MacManus calls an all-time high, participation in politics — especially at the local level — is critical. How else to reestablish trust than actually participating in our government?
So when dozens of offices are filled without voters having a voice, and without the major political parties finding candidates to oppose incumbents, participation suffers — so does democracy. And that allows the cancer of distrust to grow.
So here’s what we must do. We must vote, first and foremost. We must participate in our most local forms of government — attending meetings or serving on panels or even running for office. We have to get used to talking to our representatives, letting them know when they aren’t serving us well and when they are. And we must pressure whatever political party we may belong to not to abandon elections wholesale. We need qualified candidates to run on every level.
The candidates may not win, but the people will.