Election Day is coming soon. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Mainers by the thousands will visit their polling places and help choose leaders for the state and the nation.

But how much of a choice do Maine voters actually have?

An analysis of data available to all citizens at the Maine Bureau of Corporations, Elections and Commissions uncovers some unsettling trends: 86 percent of candidates for the Maine Senate and 91 percent of candidates for the Maine House of Representatives had no opposition in this year’s primary election. By far, most Mainers’ party primary ballots had only one option appear for state legislative candidates.

For the general election, most voters are at least able to choose between the parties’ anointed candidates, even if they weren’t able to vote on who those candidates would be. Indeed, in nine legislative races this year, voters have an extra choice because an independent candidate appears on the ballot.

However, in two Maine Senate races and in 18 Maine House races, only one candidate is on the general election ballot. Not one of the 20 candidates in those races faced any opposition on their primary ballot. When the 128th Maine State Legislature convenes, more than 1/10th of legislators will have walked into office without any opportunity for a constituent to vote for someone else.

In a startling number of legislative elections, Mainers don’t have a choice at the ballot box. But this doesn’t mean that Mainers haven’t made choices.

As Ralph Nader once said, “Showing up is half of democracy.” When only one candidate runs in a party primary, that’s because Mainers of a political party are making a choice not to show up. When no candidate runs in a party’s primary, that’s because Mainers chose not to show up. Even in the districts where party primaries had two candidates this year, only 7.8 percent of the voting-age population cast primary votes on average. Again, Mainers chose not to show up.

There are many reasons why a person might not show up to participate as a candidate or to support an alternative candidate. Of the 20 candidates running without any opposition at all this year, 19 are incumbents. It might be that they’ve done such a spectacular job representing their districts that they’re wildly popular in their districts and nobody’s seen any reason to oppose them.

It might also be that Mainers don’t see any problems in their state that need to be fixed in the state Legislature. It doesn’t matter who’s in our state Legislature if lawmakers don’t need to do anything important.

On the other hand, it could be that Mainers are staying away from participation in the political process because they don’t see the point in participating. It could be that Mainers feel that their voices wouldn’t be heard if they did speak. That’s certainly a possibility, but if we don’t speak, being unheard is inevitable.

The 20th Century American activist Abbie Hoffman once was arrested for refusing to leave a university building after university leaders wouldn’t meet with him, wouldn’t listen to what he had to say. At his trial, Hoffman defended his action by saying that “I grew up with the idea that democracy is not something you believe in, or a place you hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles and falls apart.”

If you’re one of the many Mainers who believes that democracy is crumbling before our eyes, I’m not suggesting you get yourself arrested. But staying home and doing nothing guarantees that democracy will fall apart. Democracy is not something you believe in, then watch someone else do. It’s something you do. You participate. You show up, on Election Day, and on Primary Day, and on candidate filing deadline day, and on every day in between when you have a chance to change Maine’s fate.

We may not always have a choice at the ballot box, but we always have a more fundamental choice: show up, participate, or crumble.

The crumbling is something we started, and it’s something we can make the choice to stop.

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.


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