Minnesota fares well in rankings of civic engagement, earning top marks in areas like voter turnout and community involvement.
But in Tuesday’s midterm elections, nearly 400 offices sat vacant, with not a single person signed up to run.
Hundreds of other candidates across the state ran unopposed, according to a computer analysis by the Secretary of State at the Star Tribune’s request.
“I was hoping somebody would step up to the plate,” sighed George Trettel, who may reluctantly end up serving yet another term as mayor of Bowlus. “It’s a dirty job nobody wants. I guess they figure if you do it once, you’ll do it again.”
From Albertville to Elko New Market, and all across the state, lagging participation in local politics may be only part of a bigger trend: a growing sense of apathy toward government, especially among younger folks, busier than ever and less likely to put down roots.
Among the results:
• In Mendota, veteran City Council Member Alan Ralston says that until this year, he doesn’t recall a council seat that didn’t draw one candidate.
• In Montgomery, after just one person came forth for two open seats, Mayor Jean Keogh wonders what happens when her term ends. “It’s worrisome … who’s going to step up?”
• Tiny New Trier, says Council Member Patti Brown, has just plain run out of mayors: “I can kind of look around town and see a lot of people who have already served.”
Most vacancies were for city council seats, mayors, or other roles in small towns. Some were cities on the far fringes of the metro. Many will likely be filled by write-ins.
Over two decades, candidate pools have grown smaller, said Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota sociologist. Interest is waning as the younger generation joins groups that cater to specific pursuits — a snowmobile association, an environmental club — instead of place-based groups, such as city councils.
The lack of participation affects much more than a city’s morale. The scenarios in which there is an open seat — crossing fingers that a write-in candidate will materialize and want the position, holding costly special elections or having councils appoint someone — can hinder the democratic process and result in less-than-invested elected officials.
“If you want quality government, you need people with good qualifications in competitive races for public office,” said Steven Schier, a Carleton College political science professor. “Appointments or write-ins — that’s not the way to consistently get quality government at any level.”
And then there’s the fear that some day, no one will run.
“We’re full of these families that are younger, but involvement stops at a point,” said Josh Berg, who ran unopposed for a city council seat in Elko New Market, a growing exurb in Scott County. “Before we know it, there’s not going to be anyone involved, and then we’ll be up a creek.”
Some small towns struggle to fill positions on a regular basis, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, said Winchester. One study estimated that 1 in 20 people has to be involved in a leadership position in a town with fewer than 5,000 residents, he noted.
But officials in towns like Mendota, Dundas and New Trier indicated that this was the first year in memory they hadn’t had anyone running. That suggests participation may be on a slow nose-dive, though state officials say they don’t readily have that data.
Schier said 378 open positions “strikes me as a high number” — but consistent with this year’s low voter turnout: about 50 percent, lowest in at least 20 years.
A small exurban city like Elko New Market “is the perfect example” of the forces negatively affecting civic participation, Schier said. Busy young families, parents commuting long distances, transplants with less connection to the community.
“When you add up the family time, the travel time, you understand why you don’t have a lot of candidates,” Schier said. “If they have spare time, it’s going to involve family or school.”
Elko New Market was the fastest-growing Minnesota city between 2000 and 2010. But for the first time this year, no one ran for an open council seat, so a write-in candidate will fill it. Candidates running unopposed were elected to two other seats. And since 2012, three new council members have had to be appointed because of turnover.
Outgoing Mayor Tony Gabriel said that a pair of elections with fewer candidates doesn’t indicate a trend, and pointed out that they always end up filling the spots. A sense that things are running smoothly and there are no controversial issues at stake may mean people aren’t compelled to get involved, he said.
But others are concerned. The lack of candidates “is obviously an issue,” said Amy Lewis, vice president of Elko New Market’s Chamber of Commerce. “You know, cities don’t run themselves.” The city needs to foster candidates for future years, she added. Not having competition “doesn’t give people a choice, really.”
What happens now?
In many cities that had no one file for a seat, officials are scrambling to count write-in votes and determine whether the number one candidate wants the job.
“It’s a really awkward situation for municipalities,” said Schier. “They have to find a way to fill those offices, and sometimes you can get a rather exotic write-in candidate.”
If a write-in candidate doesn’t materialize or want to serve, councils can appoint someone to serve until they hold a special election.
But there are problems with appointing candidates, said Keogh of Montgomery. “These positions are elected for a reason,” she said.
The jury is still out on whether write-in candidates differ in quality or commitment from those who officially ran, said Winchester.
Schier said that counting on write-in candidates consistently isn’t smart: “Like Forrest Gump said, it makes city government like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.”
But many cities said write-in candidates are as good as anybody else. Adam Nafstad, public works director in Albertville, said the city has had some “very successful council members” written in.
Sometimes, quality candidates go the write-in route because they simply don’t want to campaign, said Lewis in Elko New Market.
In cities like Albertville, Dundas, Montgomery and Keister, it appears write-in candidates will take the spots.
Though a viable write-in candidate has turned up in Mendota, the write-in process can be unpredictable, Mendota’s Ralston said, mentioning that a dog was recently elected mayor in tiny Cormorant, Minn.
But in Bowlus, population 290, Trettel is bracing himself in case he again wins the write-in vote. Last term, he took the job out of “basically sheer guilt,” he said, and doesn’t plan on doing it again.
But there might not be anyone else, and he’s not sure what happens if a city doesn’t have a mayor. “I’ll be the first to admit I have a bad attitude about it,” he said. “I guess, never say never.”