by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
When we go to the polls to cast our votes, we like to think we have the opportunity to cast a ballot for each office that is being filled in that election. However, that’s not always the case.
As it stands, there are hundreds of elected officials holding office in Missouri whom no voter has ever seen on a ballot. This is due to an exception in state law that allows certain governmental bodies to forgo an election if the number of candidates who file for the position is equal to the number of available positions. This exception applies to nonpartisan elections for bodies such as county, school, fire, water and ambulance districts.
Implemented as a cost-saving measure to save these districts from sharing in the costs of local elections, this provision has had a number of side effects, none of them particularly good.
In some cases, it has been so long since voters have seen a particular office on the ballot that they have forgotten it is an elected office. Having a position on a ballot — even if there is only one person running for the position — reminds both voters and officeholders that this is an elected position. Moreover, it might energize people to file for that office in the future.
Another negative consequence of not having positions listed on the ballot is that it eliminates the possibility of write-in candidates for these positions. Once the filing period has ended, mounting a write-in campaign is the only way to provide opposition to an incumbent or the solitary filer for a position. By not printing the position on the election day ballot, the end of the filing period becomes the de facto election day. While write-in candidates are rarely successful in big races, they have a fighting chance in small races.
Some argue that write-in candidates are just out of luck and should have filed at the appropriate time. But if there is truth to this argument, then we should remove the write-in provision for all elected positions and not just some positions. The ability to cast your ballot for whomever you want to represent you — prompt filer or tardy write-in — is a long-standing democratic principle that deserves to be upheld.
More worrisome is that the current precedent for uncontested elections has caused a number of these bodies to participate in “candidate suppression” from time to time. For example, if a water…