Challenger challenge

by Sebastian Benthall

Kim Hynes has cross-posted to the Common Cause blog urging readers in Connecticut to get political exercise by running for office against their incumbent representatives. As she points out, there are great democratic effects of challenged seats even when the challenger is not elected.

After I ran in 2004, many people would ask me if I `won’. I would tell them that I did win. I didn’t get elected, but I won. What I mean by this is that I became a better person because of the experience. Why, you ask – what good did it really do? I may not have gotten elected, but the electorate sure did get energized by my race. Hundreds of people showed up for the debates. People started talking about local issues that they care about. People got to know my opponent better, and found out how she stands on the issues. I provided reverse coat tails – in the areas in which I ran, the Congressional candidate did demonstrably better than in areas where the incumbents were unopposed. Finally, I provided the inspiration for a candidate in the next district over – who ran in 2006 and lost by just 200 votes. This year the incumbent in that district has decided to retire, and the same candidate has a very good chance at winning this seat – in a district considered unwinnable for challengers.

I’m wholeheartedly in support of Hynes’ call for challengers. But can there be too many challengers?

Yes and no. Yes, when we use a plurality voting system for our elections. FairVote succinctly sums up the problems of plurality voting:

Three is a crowd in our current voting system. Plurality voting, where the candidate with the most votes wins, is dysfunctional when more than two candidates run. It promotes zero-sum politics that discourage new candidates, suppress new ideas and encourage negative campaigns rather than inclusive efforts to build consensus.

Plurality voting weakens candidates the more their politics agree with each other. So two challengers both fighting for the same reforms against an entrenched incumbent can become each others’ greatest enemy.

But in principle, we should stand strong that No, there can’t be too many challengers. Rather, we should be working to change the system so that our democratic process can be as lively as possible.

As I write this, I am worried about the upcoming election in New York’s Assembly District 64. Paul Newell, who I’ve written about here before, has a challenger, Luke Henry, who appears to have less press but a sexier website. (That is, since he fixed up its blog section, which used to contain his page embedded in an IFrame.) So far I haven’t traced out their policy differences; I don’t think it should matter much, since the greatest strength of both is pluck and the promise of Albany reform.

I worry about the chance that they will split the protest vote. It’s unfair for them to have to work around that consideration (instant runoff voting would allow them to run in friendly, undistorted competition). My hope is that they can come to some agreement between themselves, and then add voting system reform to their toolbox for fixing Albany.