When Election Day Comes And There's Only One Candidate On The Ballot

Nov 4, 2017
Originally published on November 7, 2017 10:38 am

Helen Webster wanted to be involved in the school district in her small town of Kremmling, Colo.

"I just felt bad that they weren't going to have anyone run up here," she says.

So the retired teacher decided to run for a seat on the West Grand County school board. A current board member invited her to a meeting so she could get a sense of the workload.

As she sat through all the presentations detailing next year's budget needs, it dawned on her. "I thought 'oh my God, this is more than what I bit off, I don't know that I could do that,'" she laughs.

Right after the meeting, she called her husband and told him she was going to drop out of the race. Instead, another candidate will automatically be appointed to the board. The other three seats on the board that were up for grabs were also uncontested so the election was canceled, making Grand County one of six counties in Colorado to cancel an election this year.

Offices in search of candidates

Grand County isn't the only place where there are public offices in search of candidates this coming Election Day.

There's a decreasing willingness of citizens to serve in state and local government, says Adam Myers, a political science professor at Providence College who's studied the issue.

"One of the big issues in state legislative races all over the country is uncontested seats," he says. "Roughly 35 percent of state legislative contests in the country are uncontested each year, so that's a very high percentage."

Myers believes it's a bad sign for democracy when voters aren't presented with at least two options in a race. And he says, the problem tends to get worse the further down ballot a race is.

"We don't have the same data on local races, but 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."

Long hours, no pay

Myer says one of the biggest reasons people don't run for school board in particular is money. It's a volunteer office in Colorado, as it is in many other states. Myers' research shows that states with higher pay for elected offices tend to have fewer uncontested races. And when it comes to school board, not only is it unpaid, but it's also a lot of work.

"I tell folks that we deal with people's tax money and their children, and so there's lots of emotion, lots of things attached to that," says Matt Cook, the director of policy and advocacy at the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Cook says a variety of factors play into this year's high number of uncontested school board races. For one, almost all of the six counties that canceled elections this year are remote or rural places — places that have steadily bled population in recent years as many have left in droves for Colorado's larger cities.

Another reason is the nature of the office itself, says Cook. School board seats — unlike other political offices — are a hard sell for people who don't have kids.

"We know that there's about 80 percent of the state that doesn't have a direct connection to public education, either through a student in the district, a grandchild, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece, something like that," he says. "Often times it's hard for them to really see what's going on."

When it came to Helen Webster, there was never any question of a connection to schools. She spent her career in them, from teaching English as a Second Language, to working with children with special needs, to even working as a receptionist in the front office.

For her, it was the time commitment that was untenable. When the West Grand County school board began to discuss travel plans for a seminar, she knew she was out.

"I had just started kidney dialysis, and trips are not a thing I can do," she says.

Webster says she felt bad about pulling out of the race, but she says she did it because she didn't think she could give the position the time and dedication it deserved. It turned out no one else could either, aside from the candidate who will be appointed to the seat without earning a single vote.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Odd-numbered years are often reserved for local elections, and tomorrow is the day. But in many smaller towns and cities Tuesday will come and go without a single vote being cast. That's because uncontested elections are becoming more common. Colorado Public Radio's Ann Marie Awad has our report.

ANN MARIE AWAD, BYLINE: Helen Webster didn't quite know what she was getting herself into.

HELEN WEBSTER: I just felt bad that, you know, they weren't going to have anyone to run up here.

AWAD: Webster is a retired teacher. She decided to throw her hat in the ring and run for a seat on the West Grand County School Board. A current board member invited her to a meeting so she could get a sense of the workload.

WEBSTER: I thought, oh, my God. This is more than what I bit off. I don't know that I could do that.

AWAD: So right after the meeting she decided to withdraw from the race. Another candidate will automatically be appointed to the board. There are three more uncontested seats on that school board. To save money, Grand County canceled its election this fall, as did five other counties here in Colorado. Adam Myers is a political science professor at Providence College. He says there's a trickle-down effect.

ADAM MYERS: One of the big issues in state legislative races all over the country is uncontested seats. Roughly 35 percent of state legislative contests in the country are uncontested each year. So that's a very high percentage.

AWAD: Myers says it's a bad sign for democracy when voters are not presented with at least two options in a race. And he says the problem tends to get worse the further down ballot a race is.

MYERS: We don't have the same data on local races, but we have every reason to believe that the percentage of local races - so school board races, city council races, et cetera - that are uncontested is even higher.

AWAD: Myers says one of the biggest reasons people don't run for school board in particular is money. It's a volunteer office in Colorado, along with many other states. It's also a lot of work. Matt Cook is the director of policy and advocacy at the Colorado Association of School Boards.

MATT COOK: I tell folks that we deal with people's tax money and their children. And so there's lots of emotion, lots of things attached to that.

AWAD: Cook says a variety of factors play into this year's high number of uncontested school board races. For one, almost all of the six counties that canceled elections this year are remote or rural places. Cook says another reason is the nature of the office itself. School board seats, unlike many other political offices, are hard to sell to people who don't have kids.

COOK: We know that there's about 80 percent of the state that doesn't have a direct connection to public education either through a student in the district, a grandchild, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece, something like that. And oftentimes it's hard for them to really see what's going on.

AWAD: For Helen Webster, it was never a question of whether or not she had a connection to the schools. She spent her career in them, from teaching ESL to working with children with special needs. For her, the time commitment was the big surprise. When the West Grand County School Board began to discuss travel plans for a seminar, she knew she was out.

WEBSTER: I had just started kidney dialysis. And trips are not a thing that I can do.

AWAD: Webster says she felt bad about pulling out of the race, but she says she did it because she didn't think she could give the job the time it needed. So now someone who does have the time will get the school board seat without having to earn a single vote. For NPR News, I'm Ann Marie Awad in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROVANE'S "INSTANT GODS OUT OF THE BOX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.