The government in Millville, a small city in Cache County, doesn’t occupy an imposing piece of the landscape. As with many Utah towns, nature provides enough of a spectacular backdrop that some human-made City Hall monument would seem pretentious.
Still, the city’s government building looks like a temporary structure that could easily be moved somewhere with a pickup, or perhaps a stiff wind. But then, the city has a population just below 2,000.
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It also has a history of competitive municipal elections, until this year.
In the past, City Recorder Rose Mary Jones told The Associated Press, neighbors might have to get together and give someone the hard sell to convince them to run for something, but, “I think we’ve always had someone.”
Not in 2015. The City Council voted last week to call off Election Day in November. None of the three incumbent council members up for election have any competition. There is no need for a late-night Election Day party.
The same thing either has happened or is expected to happen in at least nine other Utah cities, the AP said.
So, what gives? Is this a sign that all is well and everyone is happy with how things are being run, or is it a warning that something is terribly wrong?
However you see the answer to that one, it is indisputable that this is part of a larger trend nationally. The website ballotpedia.org looks only at state legislative races, but it finds a growing trend toward uncontested races. It found that 32.8 percent of Americans in places with state senate elections in 2014 had no choice on the ballot. The percentage of people with uncontested state House races was even higher, 40.4 percent. You can only guess how municipal elections fare.
In Utah, the percentage of uncontested legislative races has varied through the years. In 1968, 4.3 percent of state House races offered no choices, compared to 22.7 percent last year. But ballotpedia makes the point that the percentage of races considered landslides has been growing, as well.
In Utah, only 6.7 percent of House races last year were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less, which is still a wipeout in my book. But in 1970, 34.8 percent of the races fell within that margin.
The website blames this in part on the nation’s growing political polarization. We tend to move to cities and counties where people share our own political beliefs.
Except that Utah’s municipal elections are non-partisan. In small towns, there are no traditionally Democratic or Republican ways to maintain roads or catch stray dogs.
Are we lacking in civic engagement? That’s hard to say because that term has a couple of sides to it.
Utahns tend to lead the nation when it comes to volunteerism. For nine years running, the Corporation for National and Community Service has ranked the state No. 1. When people here see a need, they are quick to show up, shovel in hand if necessary, and do their part. That certainly qualifies as being civically engaged, and it takes an enormous load off government, to the tune of $3.5 billion a year, figuring the average value of a volunteer’s time is $22.65 an hour.
But voting and running for office are a part of civic engagement, too. Sitting at home complaining about Washington doesn’t count. The most important government is the one closest to you.
Utah has among the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation. Local leaders think they have solved some of that by conducting many municipal elections entirely by mail this year, and there are signs to indicate they’re on to something.
But the method of voting doesn’t matter if no one’s on the ballot.
Millville resident Julie Hall told the AP she’s happy with the way her city is being run, but she still finds it, “kind of odd that nobody actually ran.”
Maybe being happy isn’t the point. Democracy is about choices. Just as no two people are alike, no two people would run things exactly the same way. It’s good to consider different approaches, just as it’s bad to invite complacency and a sense of entitlement to office.