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Our view: Write-in races could portend political trouble

Is it just a matter of small towns and sparsely populated areas struggling for the time being to find candidates? Or does it portend difficulty going forward due to today’s politically volatile environment? We hope it’s the former, but worry it’s the latter.

Herald pull quote, 11/16/22
Herald graphic
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Will there be enough candidates to fill the many elected positions needed to run the towns and townships in rural areas of the Dakotas and Minnesota?

We hope so, but last week’s election gives us concern.

Consider what happened in East Grand Forks. There, voters filled one of the open seats for the City Council entirely by writing in candidates, since nobody officially declared for the at-large position. Altogether, voters in East Grand Forks submitted 167 names; of the potential council members, Karen Peterson earned the spot by receiving 80 votes.

City Administrator David Murphy told the Herald prior to the election that he’d never before seen a council race without a declared candidate. And it happened in East Grand Forks, with a population of approximately 9,100.

It’s happening elsewhere, too, including in Crookston, where a City Council seat was without a declared candidate. As of Monday, that race had not yet been declared, as it was awaiting the canvassing process.

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In June, Karl Broeren earned the Northwood, North Dakota, mayor’s seat by way of a write-in election. After there were no declared candidates, 74 voters wrote Broeren’s name on the ballot.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” Broeren told the Herald after the election. “I heard rumors. I guess I expected the result to be what it was.”

Also in June, the Thompson, North Dakota, mayoral race was decided by write-in ballot, when Jeremy Hughes received 65 votes.

In smaller towns, we suppose write-in campaigns are more common. Last week throughout Polk County, Minnesota, for example, there were a number of elections that were entirely conducted by write-in ballot, mostly for positions on rural township boards. The Nielsville mayoral race apparently was decided by write-in vote, too.

Is it just a matter of small towns and sparsely populated areas struggling for the time being to find candidates? Or does it portend difficulty going forward due to today’s politically volatile environment?

We hope it’s the former, but worry it’s the latter.

Crookston City Administrator Corky Reynolds believes that as the Baby Boomer generation moves out of public service roles, there aren’t enough interested candidates coming forward. It doesn’t help, he said, when elected officials are subjected to sometimes vicious scrutiny.

“I think the active and aggressive participation by citizens directed toward public officials has increased,” Reynolds told the Herald. “The people who serve in public-service roles are there to do public service and they feel confronted, offended and challenged that there is such aggressiveness. I think the common reaction is ‘Why subject myself to that?’”

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It’s something to think about as school boards, county commissions and city councils continue to see sometimes ugly confrontations between elected officials and concerned residents.

Certainly, disagreements will arise, but these issues cannot become so personal and vicious. If things don’t change, it’s possible these struggles to fill important positions will continue.

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