The ability to make meaningful choices in an election is one of the hallmarks of democracy. In theory, voters should almost always be presented with at least two candidates who offer different ideas for how best to govern and represent the community. Additionally, competitive races ensure that once in office, elected officials do not take their position for granted, while also serving as a reminder to them that they serve at the pleasure of the people, not the other way around.
Unfortunately, that idealized version of democracy is too often lost in this country. In this form of democracy, the people elect a representative; someone who they feel best shares their views on most issues. In an ideal world, an incumbent is able to remain in office because he or she continues to represent their constituents well; but, in reality it is all too easy for incumbents to scare off challengers because they have amassed large war chests and have nurtured or inherited strong political networks. Long serving incumbents is nothing new here in Georgia; in fact, our state is one of the worst offenders when it comes to encouraging participation in the electoral process, ranking almost dead last in a recent analysis of election competitiveness. In state legislative races last year, 81% of incumbents ran unopposed. Even worse, of the hand full races with open seats, 82% of them ended up with only one name on the ballot.
Georgia is in clear need of an update to its electoral process. Large financial advantages for incumbents and extreme gerrymandering have increasingly made mounting a challenge to an incumbent almost impossible. Democrats have attempted to update state law to improve competition and fairness, but as a minority party with barely a third of the seats in the Georgia House and Senate, those measures have failed to gain traction. Progress requires more Democratic voices under the Gold Dome, but putting more of those voices there requires progress.
That is why, after years of ignoring seats thought to be unwinnable, Democrats have decided enough is enough. Perhaps it was the election of our sitting president that brought people to the table. Perhaps it was the increasing far-right rhetoric coming from the newest crop of GOP gubernatorial candidates. Perhaps it was Jon Ossoff’s insurgent campaign and nail-biting loss in the 6th Congressional District. Regardless of the reason, Democratic candidates have qualified for races in House Districts 26, 117, and 119 for the first time since the maps were redrawn to favor Republicans during redistricting.
The Democratic candidates who qualified for those districts (Steve Smith, Deborah Gonzalez, and Jonathan Wallace, respectively) are no doubt aware that they are fighting an uphill battle, the Republican party will most certainly inundate their long-held districts with ads, mailers, and phone calls to protect their entrenched position. The districts are by no means guaranteed to remain republican, but it definitely will not be easy to turn them blue.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that this is how change begins. No matter the results of these special elections, Democrats must continue to fight. We cannot tolerate complacency, defeatism, or apathy within ourselves. If we ever hope to make progress on living wages, women’s rights, democratic integrity, or affordable access to education, we must fight for every seat on the map. The fights may not be fair, but they must be fought regardless.
Smith, Gonzalez, and Wallace are on the front lines, but they need not stand alone. The 2018 elections come closer every day, and every ballot in every county should have a (D) on it for every House seat and every Senate seat. These newly contested seats show that there is a renewed hope in this state for Democrats. Let’s not squander it.
Tharon Johnson is a consultant with Paramount Consulting Group and a Democrat strategist.