Gardiner’s 2019 local election was unusual in that, at town level, all candidates ran unopposed. The Gardiner Republican Party chose not to nominate any candidates, assuring a win for the Democrats.
At least somebody ran. But was 2019 a sign of things to come? In some small towns, no one at all runs.
“Want to be mayor? Move to one of these places. Dozens of Minnesota city council, town board and mayoral elections are missing something this year —candidates.” Wilmont, Minnesota, 2016
“Nobody runs for office in small N.C. town. In the North Carolina town of Tar Heel, residents won’t have to worry about Big Government. It’s looking like No Government. The positions will all be write-ins come November.” CNN, 2011
“What Happens When You Hold an Election and Nobody Runs? Confusion Wins. Montana town re-elects city councilman who wasn’t on the ballot; ‘ I had hoped that somebody would come forward.’ The Wall Street Journal, 2019
The causes are many. Registered Democrats in Gardiner now outweigh Republicans by a wide margin, perhaps making it harder and harder for Republican candidates to reconcile the time and effort of running against the chance of winning. That doesn’t fully explain it though; in 2019, the Democratic Committee tried for months to recruit other candidates, and finally endorsed a candidate who had previously identified as Republican.
There are other obstacles: it’s a lot of work and there isn’t a lot of benefit to it unless you have a strong motivation to serve your town; the election process itself can be grueling in terms of time and stress; and being a public figure is not to everyone’s liking. Still, it was always thus, wasn’t it?
What is new is the graying of city halls. It’s the baby boomer syndrome cropping up in new form. Baby boomers have carried the ball for several decades and are now stepping down. Some areas are having difficulty attracting younger blood for boards, advisory panels and committees that serve as training grounds for future leaders. Also true is that politics has become uglier, and fewer people have the stomach for it.
We hope it will never get that bad in Gardiner, but some towns say that if no one is on the ballot, the current council fills vacancies with appointments—often with those whose terms expired. And some towns use only write-in ballots, so anyone can find out they’ve been elected. Whether they are willing to serve is another matter.
There are no clear answers, but the 2019 Gardiner election was a possible wake up call. We can all wait to see what 2021 brings, or take 2019 to heart and get involved now.