Next year, Cumberland County residents have the opportunity to vote for representatives at every level of government from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to a new governor. We’ll also have a number of local elections. All 18 seats on the Cumberland County Commission will be up for election, along with five seats on the Cumberland County Board of Education. We will elect a new county mayor and choose officials for a number of county offices.
But in many of these races, we may not have a lot of options on the ballot.
Across the country, communities face the same hurdle — how do we get people willing to serve in public office? According to an article on NPR, about 35 percent of state legislative contests in the country are uncontested each year. There is no data for local races, but Adam Myers, a political science professor at Providence College says “We have every reason to believe that the percentage of local races — so school board races, city council races, etc. — that are uncontested is even higher.”
And who can blame them?
The hours are long and the pay is low. Take, for example, our county commission. There are 13 committees established to help handle the county’s business. Each committee can include up to nine commissioners. Some meet every month (or more often, if necessary). Others meet when needed.
These meetings can take a lot of time to prepare for and take a lot of time to sit through. But the committees are where the bulk of the commission’s work is done. It’s in these panels they discuss the pros and cons of different actions. While there may be occasional items that spark discussion at the regular monthly meeting of the commission, that’s not often the case. So many commissioners will go to committees they are not assigned to, to hear the discussion and get more information.
Public service can also often be a thankless job. No matter what you do, someone is bound to be unhappy. And sometimes, a lot of someones may be unhappy. Some of the very actions we hate about national politics filters down into our local elections.
I don’t wonder why more people don’t want to step up and throw their hats into the local electoral ring.
Unfortunately for us, though, these local races impact us all so much more than national or even state politics. Local budgets fund our schools. Our school board sets policy for our educators and students and determines zoning lines for attendance and priorities for construction. Local leaders are tasked with taking care of our public’s investment in infrastructure and buildings. Their decisions play an important part in economic development and in making our community a place where people want to move and build their lives.
We bemoan poor voter turnout. Last November, Cumberland County actually had a voter turnout above 60 percent. But that was primarily due to a hotly contested presidential election. Nationally, 60.2 percent of the nation went to the polls and cast their ballot.
And that’s considered a “good” turnout — with almost 40 percent of registered voters not even bothering to cast a ballot in the presidential election.
When voters went to the pols on Aug. 4, 2016, for the state primary and county general election, only 13 percent of Cumberland County voters bothered to vote.
Part of that could have been the lackluster ballot. With five seats up for election on the board of education, only two districts had multiple candidates running. There were two seats up for the county commission — due to one commissioner’s resignation and the death of another. The election sought to fill the unexpired terms until the next county commission election in 2018. One person ran in the first district. Three sought the post in the ninth district.
Most of the state primaries were uncontested.
We tell folks they need to do their civic duty and go vote, yet many voters will find little choice on the ballot.
There’s plenty of time before candidates must file for local races for next year’s county election. If you think you have some good ideas to help this city, county, state, or country move forward, start thinking now if you’re willing to step up to the plate and serve.