The race to replace Mike Beebe as governor will gain the bulk of the air time — literally and figuratively — among the 2014 races for state government positions. At the other end of the state ballot, a handful of races for state House that will determine control of that body will draw in significant outside money pummeling voters in those small districts with direct mail and robocalls. But, it is the outcome for races in the middle of the state ballot — those state executive officials below the governorship — that will have significant ramifications on future elections in state. That is because whichever party controls four or more of those seven positions is considered the “majority party,” giving it control of all 75 county election commissions in a state where, as in most matters, local control is the name of the game.
Much of the work of election commissions — from drawing for the order of candidates on a ballot to certifying the outcome of elections — is perfunctory and partisan control of the body irrelevant. But, on a variety of other matters, the decisions made by the bodies could impact the functioning of democracy and the outcome of elections in Arkansas. Most importantly, county election commissions have the power to create new precincts, shift polling locations, and determine how many and where early voting sites should exist in their county. A flurry of good political science research shows us that changing polling sites and moving those sites further from the homes of voters have major ramifications on turnout. The evidence is even clearer that, in an era where voters are looking to vote early because of their busy schedules, the number and placement of early voting locations has an impact on overall turnout. Because they are more likely to have inflexible work schedules and be dependent upon others for transportation, Democratic constituencies tend to be most susceptible to shifts and limitations on voting sites.
Since Reconstruction, of course, Democrats have been the “majority party” in this state through their thorough control of these seven statewide positions (several of which, I’ve argued, either should not exist or should not be elected by the people). Hubris driven by this success stymied efforts to shift to a system that is more truly nonpartisan, as electoral mechanics should be. The 2010 election cycle created a sense that a shift in control of the majority of these positions was inevitable. (Indeed, if not for the absence of a GOP candidate against state Treasurer Martha Shoffner, Republicans would have likely gained the majority in that tidal wave election.) At this point, Republicans are strong favorites to get to the magic number of four in 2014.
Democrats have strong candidates for governor and lieutenant governor and the attorney general’s race remains a “jump ball” (in the words of a national reporter this week) because of the unity on the Democratic side behind state Rep. Nate Steel of Nashville. A possible sweep of the three offices would keep the traditional majority party one short of the number needed for maintenance of that position.
With the clock ticking, Democrats are harmed by a failure to recruit candidates for two posts — land commissioner and state treasurer. Republican Land Commissioner John Thurston, a political novice who was a beneficiary of the 2010 tidal wave, has run an office that has stayed out of the headlines (during a period when other state officials have had a flurry of scandals) and he will run with his office title in 2014. While the Republican race for state treasurer has been a comically nasty affair, Democrats have also come up empty in a race for an office that, because of Martha Shoffner’s shenanigans, remains an albatross for the party.
In races for state auditor and secretary of state, the Democrats have candidates who are, at present, in a disadvantaged position. Susan Inman, the party’s probable nominee for secretary of state, is exactly the type of person who should be appointed to the post because of her decades of public service in making elections run right. Yet, despite his oft-criticized performance in office, most believe incumbent Mark Martin’s good fortune in sharing a famous name provides him with a tremendous advantage in the race. In the auditor’s race, a more winnable race for the Democrats, the sole candidate is Regina Stewart Hampton, an office staffer who has gotten little traction to date.
Contrary to traditional patterns, it is at this level of state politics that the Republican advantage in candidate recruitment is most stark. And, because of its importance of the outcome for the way future elections will operate, it is an advantage with clear ramifications for both parties’ futures in Arkansas.