Uncontested Town Elections Continue To Plague Nantucket

JohnCarl McGrady •

Over 60 percent of town elections have been uncontested over the course of the past 10 years on Nantucket, and an additional three percent of elections have not drawn sufficient candidates to fill every position available. Nearly every elected board, commission, and committee on the island has been impacted by the lack of candidates and since 2012, only the Select Board has had more contested elections than uncontested ones.

Even the most high-profile boards on the island have struggled to field candidates. The large majority of elections for the School Committee and Historic District Commission have been uncontested over the last decade, and nearly three-quarters of candidates for the Planning Board have run unopposed.

While incumbents are more likely to be unopposed, even elections for open seats have routinely failed to draw multiple candidates, and several town elections have featured no candidates at all.

“I think that it would be very good to have more people putting their name in to run,” School Committee member Pauline Proch, who has worked with the Nantucket Civic League to try to boost civic engagement, said. “I think it’s really important to have a diversity of voices on all of our boards.”

“It’s always valuable when more people step up and offer perspectives,” added Select Board member Brooke Mohr.

Scholars have often argued that candidates running for office unopposed erodes democracy. With no options on the ballot, the people can’t select a government of their choice and candidates appoint themselves to elected positions. Sometimes, they do so repeatedly.

Proch was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Committee in 2013 and has never faced an opponent, despite running in three elections—and despite her own efforts to encourage potential challengers.

“I’ve had coffee with eight or 10 people over the years who wanted to run, usually in the years I was up for election, and none of them have run,” she said. “I would welcome someone to run. I think competition is good.”

From the short-term rental debate to arguments over the COVID-19 policies of local schools, many of the most contentious issues on Nantucket fall at least partially under the purview of one or more elected boards.
Part of the problem may be that there is only a small pool of candidates willing to serve in elected roles. Some candidates have run unchallenged for positions on several different boards, with Linda Williams notably winning uncontested elections for the Historic District Commission, the Planning Board, and the Housing Authority at the same time in 2013.

Additionally, serving on a local board often means working long hours without pay, which can be a tough sell for candidates who need to focus on their jobs or families.

“Everybody is busy, everybody’s schedule is maxed out. For myself, I couldn’t have served on the school committee when I had young children,” Proch said. “You really have to do this going in as a volunteer.”

Proch added that serving on an elected board is also a fun and rewarding experience, and encouraged anyone interested in running for election to reach out to the current members of the board they would like to serve on.

Mohr said that for her, the process of running a campaign is not an enjoyable one at all.

“The formality of a campaign is daunting, it’s intimidating,” she said. “It’s a lot of work so I can understand why people resist or don’t feel up to the task.”

Mohr also said that the Nantucket Civic League's video series on YouTube, which explains how to run for elected office and simplifies the process, makes it a bit less daunting.

While reducing the number of elected positions would decrease the number of uncontested elections, if those positions were made appointed, it might just feed into another problem, as the Select Board has repeatedly struggled to find candidates to fill every position it is supposed to appoint.

This year, the Select Board didn’t receive a single application for four of the boards it was supposed to appoint people to, and for most of the other boards, they received the same amount of applications as there were seats to fill. Of course, even if the appointments were competitive, taking the decision out of the hands of voters would still decrease the power of the people.

Proch said there are no easy solutions to the problem, but local boards should be doing their best to increase civic engagement.

“[The School Committee] could do a workshop where there could be open dialogue back and forth between people who might be interested and current members,” she suggested.

Nantucket is far from alone in having a lack of candidates for elected boards. Across the country, the majority of local elections are uncontested. While solutions to this problem are hard to come by, anyone can be a part of resolving it—all you have to do is file to run for a position in local government next year.

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