Voter choices decline

About one-quarter of Connecticut's Senate and House of Representative elections will offer voters no choice when they go to the polls in November. That is because 22 percent of state Senate races and nearly 28 percent of House contests will feature only one candidate, according to information released by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill last week.

It is not healthy for democratic institutions when candidates can return to office unchallenged and without having to discuss issues important to voters. Even elections with heavy favorites can benefit by having an opponent who forces the frontrunner - typically the incumbent - to articulate and defend his or her positions.

The statistics are more distressing because they reverse a decade-long trend that had seen increases in the number of contested races. The willingness of more citizens to run for state Senate or House seats had coincided with the creation of the Citizens Election Program (CEP). The program provides public financing to candidates who demonstrate grassroots support by raising qualifying amounts in donations no larger than $100 each - $15,000 for Senate candidates, $5,000 for House candidates. Qualifying candidates receive general election grants of $93,690 to run a Senate campaign, $27,580 to run a House race.

Public financing has given challengers the ability to compete on equal financial footing with incumbents and eliminated the need to seek out big donors to underwrite campaigns, a process that had discouraged some from running.

In 2004, before the CEP, 36 percent of Senate races and 40.4 percent of House contests went uncontested. That number had steadily dropped to 14 percent for Senate seats and 18 percent for House seats in 2012.

It is unclear why the number of uncontested races has shot back up - a 56 percent increase over 2012 - or whether it is an anomaly or a trend. It could stem from disgust with politics generally or the formidable odds challenging candidates face in districts dominated by one party.

At least the situation is better in southeastern Connecticut than in most of the state. Only two races are unopposed locally - with Rep. Ernest Hewett returning to his 39th District seat in New London unchallenged and Rep. Diana Urban also running unopposed in the 43rd District of Stonington and North Stonington. Both are Democrats.

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