There will be something missing on the ballot when thousands of Oklahomans living near the southwestern corner of the state vote this fall.
Residents in a large swatch of land covering most of Tillman and Comanche counties won’t be voting for any state legislative candidates.
Without a single vote needing to be cast in either the primary or upcoming general election, their state House and Senate races were decided months ago. No one from any party challenged the two sitting incumbents, both Republicans, in those seats.
Although most in the state will see at least one legislative race on their general election ballot, it won’t be unusual for many to miss out on voting on at least one of their legislative representatives this year.
With 50 entirely uncontested state House or Senate district races — and 22 that were decided after the primary season (where only candidates from a single party filed for a seat) — nearly 60% of the 126 legislative seats up for election this year have already been decided. That total is more than the combined number of uncontested legislative races during the 2018 and 2016 election cycles.
Jan Largent, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Oklahoma, said it is “discouraging” that the state evidently took a step backward in fielding competitive races that could boost turnout and further engage voters in the democratic process.
“As we know, if races aren’t competitive and there’s no race for voters to even decide, candidates won’t have to work as hard for their constituents,” she said. “It really is a problem.”
Oklahoma is not alone with this issue, but it is among the states that struggle the most with fielding contested races.
A recent report from Ballotpedia, a nonprofit organization that tracks elections across the country, found that Oklahoma has the fifth-highest percentage of races without two challengers from major parties among the 44 states that have legislative elections on the ballot this year. Massachusetts, where 80% of its 200 seats lack major party competition, has the highest percentage.
What’s Driving the Lack of Contested Races?
An Oklahoma Watch review of candidate filings found that Republicans fielded at least one candidate in 95 of the 126 legislative races that will be decided this year. Democrats, meanwhile, fielded at least one candidate in only 55 races.
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews said she believes the COVID-19 pandemic was a leading cause for the large number of races that lacked any Democratic challenger.
As the national crisis was still emerging during the early April filing period, she said concerns about campaigning during an unprecedented pandemic ended up causing many candidates, many of whom were first-time political hopefuls, to cancel or postpone plans to run.
“For a lot of folks it can be challenging navigating how to run for election, especially for the first time candidates,” she said. “Over the past year we had been talking with a bunch of folks about the importance of door knocking and going to events, and then all of sudden they couldn’t do things like that.
“During our candidate recruitment efforts over the last year, we would always talk about the importance of knocking doors and going to events,” she said.
In a deeply Republican state, with more than a million registered Republicans and fewer than 740,000 registered Democrats according to the state’s latest stats, Democrats have long struggled to field candidates in large parts of the state, particularly rural areas where the party divide favors Republicans even more.
One of the Democratic party’s largest showing, however, came during the 2018 election cycle. That year’s historic teacher walkout and the fight for K-12 funding was a catalyst that spurred several educators, education advocates and other political newcomers to file for office in a record-setting filing period.
Many of those candidates ran as Democrats as the party ended up fielding candidates in 106 of the 125 House or Senate contests up for grabs that year. Republicans fielded more candidates then (at least one candidate in 110 of the races), but the number of Democrats vying for races was still much higher than this year.
Andrews said she believes 2022 will bring Democratic candidate filings to return or even build upon the 2018 numbers. Even in Republican strongholds where Democrats often face well-funded incumbents, she said it’s still her goal to field as many qualified candidates in as many races as possible.
“We know there are going to be longshots out there, but sometimes you have to run two or three times to build up the support to actually win,” she said. “I also believe the saying, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ so we don’t want to give (incumbent Republicans) a free pass.”
David McLain, chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said he didn’t think COVID-19 played too much of a role in dissuading Republican candidates from running for election this year.
With at least one GOP candidate running in about 75% of the legislative races, he said this shows that Republican support in the state remains strong.
“I think with the president at the top of the ticket and with the recent restructuring of the party, we are just seeing a lot of interest right now,” he said.
McLain added that any state party leader hopes to field candidates in as many districts as possible. But he said he wants the party to be strategic and prioritize races where a possible win is at least realistic.
“You have to put resources where you feel that victory lies,” he said. “We are very guarded over our incumbents and our nominees, so you want it where you can put the right resources after the primary.”
Years Without a Race
But for some residents, living in an area where their vote doesn’t matter, at least for some races, has become a yearly tradition.
Oklahoma Watch’s review of legislative filings since 2014 shows that of the 101 House seats, which are all up for election every two years, 40 House districts that were decided without a vote in at least two of the last four election cycles. This includes 13 districts (11 of which are currently held by Republicans) that haven’t had a contested race in three of the last four cycles and one district (currently held by Minority Floor Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman) that hasn’t had a single contested race during the past six years.
Races have been more competitive in the state Senate, where lawmakers serve four-year terms and represent almost twice as many constituents than their House colleagues.
There are eight uncontested Senate races that were decided without any votes needing to be cast in either the primary or general contest this year. That is up from four races in 2018 and zero uncontested races in 2016. But it is fewer than the nine uncontested races in 2014.
Largent, with the League of Women Voters, said residents in these areas are at risk of being left out of the political process and not being able to have their vote, or even their voice, heard as much as residents elsewhere.
“We think it’s positive that everyone should have an opponent because it forces the incumbent to communicate more with the voters,” she said. “And if they are not campaigning, it’s not going to help educate and engage voters.”
Correction: David McLain’s name was incorrectly spelled in a pervious version.
Trevor Brown has been an Oklahoma Watch reporter since 2016. He covers politics, elections, health policies and government accountability issues. Call or text him at (630) 301-0589. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tbrownokc