Tomorrow is Election Day in the City of Gaithersburg for the position of mayor and for two councilmember seats. (I am not on the ballot myself as we have staggered terms.)
A few citizens have asked recently why they should bother to vote, or why the City is even holding an election, given that the incumbents are all running unopposed. One person suggested that the entire exercise of holding an election under these circumstances smacks of the sort of illusory “elections” held in some autocratic, one-party nations. (What happened recently in Azerbaijan would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.) Another citizen wondered if it was a responsible use of taxpayer dollars to fund an election when the outcome is already guaranteed.
As an initial matter, we are required by law to hold this election. Section 31 of the City’s Charter mandates that an election shall be conducted at this time, regardless of how many candidates are running. So we don’t really have a choice.
But beyond that, I feel strongly that no election should ever be cancelled simply because it is uncontested. The franchise is the one fundamental right from which all other rights flow in a democratic society. Daniel Webster said “that the exercise of the elective franchise is a social duty of as solemn a nature as man can be called to perform.” It is precisely because of elections that we have the ability to hold our officials accountable, even if we don’t always use that ability. For that reason, the very exercise of the act of casting our ballots, of being counted, is important — apart from the outcome of the election. I imagine that the many new citizens we swear in during our annual naturalization ceremony on the grounds of City Hall would tend to agree. Indeed, George Washington ran essentially unopposed in our nation’s very first presidential election, but I doubt that many of the Founding Fathers or other voters of that era felt that it was not worth having an election.
Moreover, maintaining a regular, predictable schedule for elections is important for solidifying the trust and credibility of institutions of government. If a voter arrives at his usual polling place on Election Day only to discover that the election has been cancelled, that might foment uncertainty and discourage him or her from showing up to vote in future elections. For this reason, I believe it is imperative to keep all the polls open as usual on Election Day.
Even in an uncontested election, citizens may cast votes as a protest against, or an affirmation of, certain candidates or policies. Rather than succumbing to cynicism, we should heed the idealistic advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Those who stay away from the election think that one vote will do no good: ‘Tis but one step more to think one vote will do no harm.”
As for the costs associated with conducting an election, I agree that reasonable steps can be taken in circumstances where the candidates are unopposed to reduce the expenses for advertising. For example, where possible the City could order fewer banners or newspaper ads announcing the election. Similarly, where a full-color publication educating the public about each of the candidates and their views would certainly be justified during a contested election, the City might scale back to a smaller, black-and-white version for uncontested races. However, there are practical problems with implementing these types of changes. For one thing, we don’t really know whether a race will be uncontested until the deadline for candidates to file has passed and the Board of Supervisors of Elections has certified the candidates. This usually doesn’t happen until about just 5 or 6 weeks before Election Day, in order to provide enough time to let potential candidates decide whether they want to run, collect signatures, and file their paperwork. In fact, our later filing deadline is consistent with a desire to make it easier, not harder, for challengers to enter the race. But the downside is that funds are already dedicated and orders are usually already placed for ads and marketing materials touting the election by the time the candidate list is finalized.
We are not Azerbaijan. In our society, other potential candidates for office are just as free to decide that they do not want to run as they are to decide that they do. In that sense, an uncontested election is just as much an exercise of freedom and democracy as a contested one. While we cannot say for sure, it is possible that the fact that the incumbents were not challenged reflects a general feeling among the voting population that the incumbents are doing a good job and deserve reelection. It is also possible that the lack of challengers reflects a pervasive sense of apathy among the citizenry, in which case it is only the voters, as a whole, who are to blame for the absence of a contest. Or perhaps in today’s digital age of social media, more people feel that they have sufficient alternative avenues to express their views, spread their messages, and spur social change without necessarily having to run for public office.
Regardless, as Jim Hightower said, “Democracy is not something that happens just at election time, and it’s not something that happens just with one event. It’s an ongoing building process. But it also ought to be a part of our culture, a part of our lives.” Echoing this sentiment, the simultaneously communal and highly personal act of standing up and being counted every two years is an essential part of the organic and evolving spirit of Democracy. With every passing election, contested or not, we build upon that foundation and, in so doing, improve the chances that Democracy will survive and flourish in the generations to come. And that’s why I’ll be voting tomorrow. I hope you will join me.