In a bit of irony, the odd-numbered year elections seem to be the busiest time for election officials. In these odd-numbered years, we aren’t electing a president or governor or any other federal or state official. But we are electing a score of local officials. School board members, city council members, township trustees, etc., all get elected this year.
And those scores of elected officials mean that the Board of Elections and their staff are busy looking over nominating petitions and certifying those candidates for the November election. The certification process occurs early in August and this year was no different.
The Aug. 7 edition of the Troy Daily News reported the certification of candidates by the Board of Elections. The story showed that roughly one-third of all the candidate petitions received by the Board of Elections were invalidated for what were described as “elementary mistakes.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for following the rules. Election laws are there for the protection of our democracy. In addition, there are resources out there can help candidates know and follow the rules. For instance, the Secretary of State’s website has an interactive website that has a “Candidate Requirement Guide.” The guide is helpful in communicating signature requirements, fees and other laws. Ideally, it’s not supposed to be hard to run for public office.
And let me be clear, this is certainly not to cast aspersions on the Board of Elections. Their number one role in the election process is to make sure rules are fair and followed in a uniform fashion. If forms aren’t filled out correctly or boxes not filled in right, the board has an obligation to invalidate the petitions. Someone needs to be arbiter of rules in elections and that is the role the Board of Elections plays.
Yet, it is probably not in the best interest of the Board of Elections to have a large percentage of petitions invalidated and it certainly is not in the best interest of local democracy to have a limited number of choices for elected office. In most processes, when one-third of the desired result is not met, it could easily point to a larger problem with the process.
And no one knows what the problem with that process is until it’s fully investigated. I know when I read the article on Aug. 7, there were a lot of questions that came to my mind. Were the directions clear to potential candidates? Did candidates get access to the resources they need to make sure they are following the rules? In a bigger sense, are other county Board of Elections seeing the same high rejection rate? Is this a statewide problem? Is this an isolated issue? I believe at the end of the day, this high invalidation rate deserves some bigger discussion other than chalking it up to rules not being followed.
But the bigger issue at play is that issues like this make the condition of local democracy look bad. It takes a degree of courage to run for local office and if potential candidates see that over 30 percent of petitions end up being invalidated, how many of those potential candidates perceive that the system is broken and won’t even bother to try to run for local office? I am sure that number is more than a few.
Perhaps from this point forward, potential candidates will need to hire legal help to ensure that all petitions are in order to make sure that they can get on the ballot. And if that is the case going forward, that is really disappointing.
Democracy was never meant to be this hard. The candidates whose petitions were invalidated were people who were going to serve on school boards, township trustees and village councils. In many respects, these are elected positions that attract people who want to make their communities a better place. Telling folks they need to consult a lawyer to get on the ballot is another hurdle to keep good people from serving their own communities.
William (Bill) Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.