What should elections look like in a one-party town?

This article was first published in My Villager on Wednesday, September 15th, 2021. The published version of this article and reader comments are available on the Villager’s Website. View on MyVillager.com.

This November, St. Paul will vote on who will lead the Capitol City for the next 4-years.  Seven candidates have thrown their hats into the ring to challenge incumbent Mayor Carter, all political outsiders who are not expected to present any threat to what should be a smooth re-election.

This lack of electoral competition presents a real concern to democracy at the local level. Traditionally, elections represent the central moment of accountability for political leaders –citizens can choose to reward good performance through re-election, or to punish bad performance by voting for a challenger.

In the context of a one-party town, however, electoral accountability can quickly get murky. This is our situation in St. Paul, where the Republican party is effectively non-existent – St. Paul hasn’t seen a Republican mayoral candidate in decades.

Without a viable opposition party, and without a primary system, we lose this accountability. Competition forces candidates to engage with the opposition, to provide clarity on their positions, and to respond to the public’s concerns. In an uncompetitive election, however, incumbents can gloss over the controversial issues, or skip debates altogether, with little repercussion.

The main hurdle an incumbent mayor faces is securing the party endorsement. However, this is also an area where electoral competition is absent. Simply put, there is little incentive for party challengers to take on a popular incumbent, air out the dirty laundry in public, and risk damaging one’s career prospects in a tightly knit political community. It shouldn’t be surprising that this year, Mayor Carter received this endorsement with no challengers and 89 percent of ballots cast.  But what should give us all pause is that only 535 people participated in the endorsement process.  As such, a handful of party insiders, as opposed to the 61,646 voters who turned out in 2017, have chosen the Mayor and the direction of the City.

Republican or Democrat (or other) – we need to take this seriously. When our mayoral race is a foregone conclusion determined strictly at the level of party insiders, our democracy suffers. Rather than accept this as given, we should begin to ask: what would a healthy mayoral election look like in St. Paul? What can we do to promote a reasonable level of electoral competition?

As a group dedicated to transparency, to good governance, and to making the Capitol City the best place to live and work, we, St. Paul STRONG, want to hear from you. What can we do to strengthen the electoral process in a one-party town like St. Paul? Is this even a problem that requires fixing? How does this affect you? We invite My Villager readers to share your ideas and reflections by emailing stpstrong@gmail.com or by sending a letter to the editor of MyVillager.

David Greenwood-Sanchez, David Durenberger, Andy Rorvig, Andy Dawkins authored this opinion and are members of the Saint Paul STRONG steering committee.