My daughter, Rosa, is currently running for President of the Student Government Association at Oakland Mills High School (and if any OMHS students are reading this blog, you should definitely vote for her!) Voting started today and runs through Friday. When I asked Rosa last night how her campaign is going, she told me, "Well, I've got a bunch of posters up around the school. But you know Mom, now I've got to work on GOTV."
If you grow up in a political family like ours, you know that a huge part of any campaign is the work it takes to Get Out The Vote. People may like you, agree with you and want you to win, but if they don't actually make the effort to cast a vote for you, you won't win. So Rosa is spending her week trying to get everyone she knows at her high school (and a lot of people she doesn't know) to walk over to the media center during their lunch hour and cast a vote for her.
With any luck at all, her opponent is doing the same thing. The point of an election, after all, is not just to select the candidate who is the best representative of the interests and concerns of the voters. Elections are tools to increase civic engagement. By asking people to make a decision between candidates, we give them a reason to investigate what the candidates stand for and to consider whether or not they agree.
In other words, I vote because I care about my community. And voting makes me care about my community more.
Which brings me to another election. My neighborhood, like every neighborhood in Columbia, has a Village Board that consists of seven members who are up for election each year. This year, there are seven people running for seven seats. The Oakland Mills representative to the Columbia Council is also uncontested. In order for the election to be valid, 10% of the eligible voters must participate--and if that number is not reached in the first election, there will automatically be a second election. What this means, of course, is that even though the election is uncontested, the candidates have to Get Out The Vote.
This takes work. And it is work that the current Board members and Village staff would prefer not to do. So, this year there are also two amendments to the Oakland Mills by-laws on the ballot which would enable the neighborhood association to cancel the election if it is uncontested. The election newsletter than accompanied our ballot explained that currently eight out of ten of the Columbia villages cancel uncontested elections.
I think this is a really bad idea. I think it is great to ask people to vote--it reminds them that they are part of a community and that they have a voice. I also think it is great to require candidates to ask people to vote--it reminds them that they are part of a community and gets them to talk to people and maybe even to listen a bit.
And what's more--if you cancel uncontested elections, then there is an incentive for there to be uncontested elections. The current board, which would be inconvenienced by an election, will encourage people not to run unless someone leaves, in which case they will try to fill that vacancy with a single new candidate. I don't think it is good to create a system with those kinds of incentives.
So I urge my fellow Oakland Mills residents NOT to vote for these referenda. What's more, this has me thinking about upcoming state and national elections. What if 50% of eligible voters needed to vote for the election to be valid? Wouldn't that be interesting??