by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
When we go to the polls to cast our votes, we like to think we have the opportunity to cast a ballot for each office that is being filled in that election. However, that’s not always the case.
As it stands, there are hundreds of elected officials holding office in Missouri whom no voter has ever seen on a ballot. This is due to an exception in state law that allows certain governmental bodies to forgo an election if the number of candidates who file for the position is equal to the number of available positions. This exception applies to nonpartisan elections for bodies such as county, school, fire, water and ambulance districts.
Implemented as a cost-saving measure to save these districts from sharing in the costs of local elections, this provision has had a number of side effects, none of them particularly good.
In some cases, it has been so long since voters have seen a particular office on the ballot that they have forgotten it is an elected office. Having a position on a ballot — even if there is only one person running for the position — reminds both voters and officeholders that this is an elected position. Moreover, it might energize people to file for that office in the future.
Another negative consequence of not having positions listed on the ballot is that it eliminates the possibility of write-in candidates for these positions. Once the filing period has ended, mounting a write-in campaign is the only way to provide opposition to an incumbent or the solitary filer for a position. By not printing the position on the election day ballot, the end of the filing period becomes the de facto election day. While write-in candidates are rarely successful in big races, they have a fighting chance in small races.
Some argue that write-in candidates are just out of luck and should have filed at the appropriate time. But if there is truth to this argument, then we should remove the write-in provision for all elected positions and not just some positions. The ability to cast your ballot for whomever you want to represent you — prompt filer or tardy write-in — is a long-standing democratic principle that deserves to be upheld.
More worrisome is that the current precedent for uncontested elections has caused a number of these bodies to participate in “candidate suppression” from time to time. For example, if a water district has a second candidate file for a seat on the board, the current board might pressure the second candidate to withdraw because the costs of conducting the water board election will be borne by the water board itself. Well-intentioned commissioners and board members end up suppressing democratic participation in the body to which they were elected. The cost of printing the ballot should not be a consideration when candidates decide to file for office.
The Missouri House of Representatives is considering a bill, HB 173, that would eliminate the ability of these boards to forgo the conduct of elections. Grandiosely titled the Andrew Jackson Vote Restoration Act, HB 173 is supported by the League of Women Voters and several other respected groups.
“The League believes that this is simply a good government bill, that financial considerations should not override the citizens’ right to vote for those elected officials who determine how their tax dollars are spent and other important decisions,” the local chapter of the league says.
However, it is unclear whether this bill will make it to the governor’s desk. The problem, of course, is the cost of conducting these elections. Perhaps what is needed is a compromise that will reduce the cost of some elections to offset the cost of conducting these nonpartisan elections. Luckily, a lot of money can be saved by eliminating elections that don’t elect anyone to office: the primaries.
The state holds a presidential preference primary every four years to help the registered political parties select their candidate for president. Costing millions of dollars, this election elects no one to office but is conducted solely for the benefit of the political parties. There are other means for parties to select a presidential candidate, namely caucuses and conventions. Ironically, most political parties hold caucuses and conventions after the primary election anyway to select delegates to their national conventions. There is no reason they couldn’t select their presidential and other candidates at the same time. Political parties should either be made to foot the bill for the primaries or should find another way to select their candidates.
Missouri is one of the top states when it comes to having government that is close to the people. Missourians prefer to have those in power — no matter how small that power is — to be held accountable to the voters instead of being appointed by those already in power. If we believe in this democratic system, we need to elect all of our elected officials.