Free riders

Massachusetts, once known for its raucous politics, now ranks last in the nation in the percentage of voters with a choice as to who represents them in the State House. There are both Democratic and Republican candidates in only 27 of 160 state representative districts this year. (With contests in five of 40 Senate seats, we also have the lowest contested rate among the 15 states where the entire upper chamber is up for election.) The 17 percent contested rate in the House is not only below the 21 percent in runner-up Georgia, it’s down from the 26 percent that the Bay State logged two years ago — and far below the 51 percent in 2004, when then-Gov. Mitt Romney made an unsuccessful attempt to increase the number of Republicans in the Legislature.

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What determines whether a state has contested elections? As the map below shows, term limits don’t seem to be a deciding factor, since they haven’t brought about contested races in Arkansas and haven’t been necessary for a 100 percent contested rate in Minnesota. States in which one party controls the House by only a handful of votes (such as Michigan and Montana) generally have more spirited elections, but Pennsylvania has a mostly empty ballot even though its House is now split 102-101 in favor of the Democrats, and Utah has a nearly full slate despite the GOP’s 55-20 advantage there. (With a 7-to-1 advantage for the Democrats, the Massachusetts House is the most lopsided in the nation.)

Voter interest in one election may attract more candidates in the next: Minnesota and South Dakota were the only states in which more than 60 percent of the eligible population voted in 2006, and they have the highest contested rates for 2008. Arkansas and Georgia, meanwhile, had comparatively poor turnouts in 2006 and have few candidates this year. Unfortunately, Massachusetts is a glaring exception to this rule, as its high turnout in 2006 (55 percent vs. the national average of 48 percent) evidently didn’t encourage that many people to run for office this time around.