Through the years, we’ve noted one of the biggest threats to our form of democracy is apathy — not only among those who don’t bother to vote, but also among those unwilling to step forward and serve their community in public office. And while national elections often boost interest, it’s those off-year, local campaigns that really measure the level of citizen involvement.
There have been many elections in Keene where the City Council ballot offered voters few options. Quite often, candidates are elected, or re-elected, based on being the only one running. In a progressive city of 23,000 whose taxpayers are funding city spending of more than $70 million, that’s more than a little appalling.
But there seems to be a rising tide of political interest. Four years ago, Keene’s city election drew a strong response, with nearly 60 candidates filing for office, including three for mayor and 16 for five at-large City Council seats. Heading into that year’s cycle, interest in running for office had been weak, with few contested races in off-year elections.
Since, however, there’s been an upswing. Perhaps it’s due to heightened interest in politics generally, driven by the divisive national discussion. Or maybe city residents are driven by ever-increasing tax rates and/or dissatisfaction with how local government is being run. It could even be as simple as society turning back toward a more-involved, participatory mindset.
In any case, the trend holds this year. Though prospective candidates for city office have until this afternoon to file by petition, Tuesday’s deadline for filing by declaration resulted in, again, nearly five dozen candidates, including three for mayor and 13 for the five at-large council seats. There are contested seats for Ward 2 councilor and a vacant Ward 4 council seat. A whopping five people have filed for three positions as Ward 2 selectman, typically a position generating little interest.
That there are so many candidates for mayor and at-large councilor means the field will need to be cut down via a primary election Oct. 8. While there’s a cost to that, it’s far preferable to not having enough candidates to give voters a true choice.
Upholding the integrity of our elections doesn’t stop with finding enough candidates to make the races competitive and offer varied approaches to governing, of course. This is only one strong step. When voters fail to inform themselves and go to the polls, the odds of the process failing rises. This is more important than ever, amid an atmosphere of cynicism, manufactured outrage, accusations of “fake news” and intentional attempts to control the outcome of races even down to the municipal level.
So thank you to all those who’ve agreed to run. Your willingness to put yourselves forward, win or lose, is laudable.
As for the rest of us, the process of making informed decisions is just beginning.