Recently, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill suggested that we do away with off-year elections and consolidate municipal contests with our votes for Congress, governor, and president. To which I respond: where’s the fun in that?
Okay, sure, there’s a good case to be made for consolidating elections. Turnout for municipal races is agonizingly low, which means that important decisions about the future of the towns and cities where we live are made by a fraction of voters. Turnout is higher during elections in even-numbered years, therefore more people would vote for town offices. The resulting government would more accurately represent the will of the people.
It might also be easier to get people interested in running if local elections coincide with state and national. A lack of qualified candidates can be a major problem for small and large towns alike. For instance, candidates for the town’s top office, be that a mayor or a first selectman, are running unopposed in at least 37 communities this year. Add another 14 races where the only opposition is petitioning and/or minor party candidates, and a full 51 towns and cities don’t have both a Republican and a Democrat at the top of the ticket.
Thus, moving these low-interest, low-turnout races to years where there’s more excitement about elections will generate better turnout, better candidates, and more representative government.
Well, that’s how the theory goes, anyway. My own cynical counter-theory is that local issues and local races would get buried by all the garbage rolling down from the top of the heap, and municipal elections would become more thoughtlessly partisan.
This would be a shame, because town politics are one of the few areas left where Republicans and Democrats aren’t constantly at one another’s throats.
This is because our dumb culture wars tend not to matter when it comes to, say, trash pickup. Very few people care deeply about where a candidate for school board stands on Medicare for All, for instance, and they’re not that invested in whether someone running for the Board of Selectmen is anti-abortion or pro-choice.
It’s easier when you’re neighbors. Living in the same town gives people something in common that they all care about. Republicans and Democrats don’t feel quite so foreign if you know them and see them at the grocery store or the town dump. That’s how a town that votes reliably Republican in even-numbered years can have a Democrat running unopposed for another term as first selectman, as is the case for Hartland’s Wade Cole. And that’s how Erin Stewart, a well-known Republican, can be running for a fourth term as deep blue New Britain’s mayor.
Sometimes, they even endorse one another’s candidates. That’s the case this year for first selectman candidates in a number of small towns. Leonard Assard of Bethlehem, Henry Todd of Canaan, Matthew Riiska of Norfolk, and Julia Pemberton of Redding are all endorsed by Republicans and Democrats.
Not that everything is always all harmony. When things go bad, they go really bad. There’s no political fight more vicious than between two candidates in a local election who really hate one another. It’s worse when their supporters get in on the act, as happened recently when a former Democratic state official made some dumb comments about the aforementioned New Britain Republican Mayor Stewart. Facebook doesn’t help, and threats and taunts directed at rival candidates on Facebook forums are serious issues.
Facebook is a pretty vicious place when it comes to local politics. Ask me, I survived the Great Middle School Renovation Fight of 2018 on the Enfield Open Forum. I still have nightmares.
My worry is that moving municipal elections to even-numbered years will just amplify this kind of hate and anger.
I suppose I could be wrong and consolidating elections would be better in the long run. But I’d honestly miss the chance to vote every November. Election Day is my favorite day of the year, and exercising the right to vote like people in New England have been doing for nearly four centuries is one of the few things that gives me hope. I like keeping the habit of democracy fresh.
Now if only I could get anyone else to feel the same way.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.