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Reforms lead to contested state races

Published November 06. 2012 4:00AM

Regardless of how today's election turns out in Connecticut, voters should be appreciative that - with few exceptions - they have a choice about who will represent them in the state Senate and the House of Representatives.

Such was not the case a few years ago, when many candidates ran unopposed. Matters reached a nadir in 2004 when 36 percent of state Senate seats and 41 percent of House races were uncontested by a major party candidate. In other words, four out of 10 House candidates and more than one-third of Senate candidates waltzed into office without a serious challenge and not having to defend their records or their policy positions.

While the lack of contested state legislative elections reached a low point that year, it was not an anomaly. In 2000 and 2006 about 41 percent of House races were uncontested.

In contrast, this election cycle only 14 percent of Senate races and 18 percent of House elections will be unchallenged. These are the lowest totals since the Office of Secretary of the State began tracking the numbers in 1998. This is good news because competitive elections assure a debate about the issues.

Locally, only two incumbents will return to office without an opponent on the ballot - Rep. Ed Jutila in the 37th House District of East Lyme and Salem and Rep. Diana Urban in the 43rd House District of North Stonington and Stonington. Both are Democrats. (Rep. Urban does face a write-in opponent).

The major reason for the growing number of competitive races appears to be the state's Citizens' Election Program, first introduced in 2008. Having to raise enough money to compete for a legislative seat has in the past discouraged many would-be candidates. Incumbents usually enjoyed a huge advantage when it came to raising money, able to solicit contributions from special interest groups and individuals who wanted to keep the seated lawmakers happy.

The Citizens' Election Program leveled the playing field. To qualify for public financing, candidates must prove they are serious contenders by demonstrating broad public support. They do this by obtaining large numbers of small-dollar contributions from individuals, with a maximum contribution of $100. Those participating in the program cannot accept any special interest money, be it from labor, business or other groups. All qualifying candidates receive the same amount to run their general election campaigns: $91,290 for Senate races and $26,850 for House races.

Candidates do not have to participate and can raise the money the old fashioned way - by hitting up special-interest friends or bankrolling the campaign with personal wealth.

But an increasing number of candidates are taking part. In 2010 approximately 70 percent of candidates participated, this year the state exceeded that number when 76 percent participated.

Some argue the amounts candidates receive are too high, and we would welcome a discussion on that point. Also, the rules make it too difficult for minor party candidates to qualify. That needs adjustment.

But overall the program is a good one, as the increased participation in legislative elections suggests. And it has the added benefit of electing lawmakers who are not beholden to special interest groups, but only to the constituents. It was the corruption seen during the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland, leading to his resignation and year-long imprisonment for corruption, that provided the political impetus to pass the election reform law.

We suspect upset over the large tax increases used to help balance the state's budget also motivated some to run this year. As the minority party, Republicans face the greater challenge of finding quality candidates to take on incumbents. They did a good job.

Ideally, it would be great to have every race contested. But on this Election Day it is good to see Connecticut moving closer to that ideal.

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