The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 1, 2013

Dave Woods: Disappointing voter turnout expected Tuesday

By Dave Woods

— Election? What election? Has anyone heard? There’s an election on Tuesday. That’s right. A real, live, down-to-the-wire, democratic-style “E-Lection.” The kind of election only America can throw. It will be a season-ending cliff-hanger, I’m sure.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There is an election Tuesday, but it’s not going to be that kind of election in Southwest Missouri. Why am I so glum about a silly old election? Because there are few challenged races, and few seem interested in putting their name on a ballot. No one to vote for and against; just some well-meaning residents who decided they can make a difference and in a moment of weakness ended up with his or her name on a ballot by default. It happens.

Tuesday’s voting will, for a select few who are brave enough to stick out their necks, be a big day. They will toss their names — and hats — in the ring of public discourse and scrutiny. They are the brave few who dare to run for elected office, have their opinions detailed in newspaper stories, are besmirched in letters to the editor and sacrifice their time with loved ones to contribute to the public good. They will risk defeat and disappointment. But at the end of the day, when the last ballot is tallied and the numbers are read aloud in the halls of county courthouses, those brave few will get the chance to walk the walk and talk the talk. They won an election. A few folks ready to stand up, offer their opinions and advocate for those they care about. Win or lose, they gave it a whirl. Good for them.

In Jasper County alone there are more than 50 unopposed races for municipal office. From Airport Drive to Seneca, Neck City to Stella and Carthage to Sarcoxie, there are few races in which the majority of our county’s residents will really have a choice.

Now that I think about it, they are not even races. A race involves two or more candidates, and Tuesday that threshold won’t be met in Jasper County. The majority of our aldermen (and women), trustees and City Council members run unopposed and are virtually assured of election. Maybe I’m just being cranky and feeling in need of a good local political scrap, but after reviewing the races this time around, I’m left feeling cold, and it’s our fault. Surely there are enough concerned residents willing to put up a friendly fight to advocate for what they think is right for their communities, school boards and special road districts. Sexy? No. Important? Yes.

With few residents willing to sacrifice the time and privacy it takes to fulfill the oath of office, I suppose it’s not that big of a surprise. Council members, school board officers and municipal officials are not well-paid. Serving in public office requires a lot of time when done correctly.

During the two years I served as a member of the Carthage City Council, the compensation was token. Those who run certainly don’t do it for the money. In many cases public officials at the local level spend more of their own money than they earn in political office. I did it because I was asked by then-mayor, Ken Johnson, after being recruited by a friend to apply for an open council seat representing my Carthage ward. I couldn’t say no to the mayor.

Only later did I find out about the meager stipend. Bonus!

Back then, Carthage council members earned $599 a year to attend two council meetings, half a dozen other committee meetings and countless events and occasions each month. I’m not complaining. I’m surprised more folks don’t want to do it. It’s an engaging and important way to understand how our systems of local government work … or don’t, in some cases.

Either way, it’s a good gig, if you can get it. The only real benefit is satisfaction.

The problem isn’t unique to towns in Jasper County. The same can be said of towns in Newton, McDonald, Barton and Lawrence counties where election match-ups are few and far between.

I myself ran unopposed twice. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have election yard signs made. That would have been cool. I often wished I would have had opposition; someone to fight it out with; someone to challenge my opinions in a public forum and steal my campaign yard signs or scrawl ginger slurs across them. Ah, sweet regret.

I suppose I can’t point the finger at those who don’t seek elected office without doing the same at those who sit on their hands on Election Day. My voting record isn’t perfect by any measure. I’ve missed elections, and I’ve voted absentee just because it was more convenient. Don’t hate because I’m busy.

But I vote more often than not, and I proudly wear my “I Voted Today” sticker each Election Day when I return from going to the polls and punching my ballot. Remember the days when you actually got to punch a ballot? None of this electronic recording of votes stuff.

Maybe that’s part of it. Elections are no fun anymore. When was the last time a dangling chad or lost box of ballots really made an impact on a local election? With only one candidate in the running, it really doesn’t matter how many chads dangle. I’m still going to do my best to make Election Day fun. I might sneak into the newsroom for a slice of election-night pizza or monitor the Web for election updates. Since there is little for me to vote on, I’m thinking about organizing an Election Day contest with my politically interested friends. Winner takes all for the wannabe political handicapper who gets closest to the percentage of voter turnout.

Sound fun? Single digits, I suspect. I hope I’m wrong. Happy voting.

Dave Woods is market development manager at The Joplin Globe.