There is one week left before the deadline to file for candidacy in local elections. There are very few candidates so far. In fact, if there are no further filings, only one of six seats on the Rolla City Council will be contested - an 11-year low (going back as far as Phelps County results are posted on the Internet.) Elections for three seats on the Rolla School Board, one on the Phelps County Regional Medical Center Board, City Attorney and Municipal Judge are also to date uncontested.
2008 is on track to surpass the dismal local election performance of April 2007, in which only two of six Rolla City wards had contested races and voter turnout was down to a miserable 6 percent from 21 percent the previous year. For the first time last year, two positions on the Rolla School Board went uncontested. There hasn't been a contested race for the PCRMC Board since 2003.
Compare this with ten short years ago. 1998 was the last year that every Rolla City Council seat, as well as the mayor, Rolla School Board and PCRMC Board were all contested.
Voter turnout in 1998 was 29 percent.
This trend should be disturbing to anyone who cares about our democracy. Is this really the best that we can do in a country that prides itself on its democratic traditions?
I'd like to be able to give you a solution to the problem of citizen apathy, but honestly I have none. All I can do is discuss some of my past experiences as a candidate.
I've run for public office twice, finishing last both times. I'm not at all sorry that I ran. I'd do it again - and probably will some day.
For my part, the most important thing I accomplished was introducing issues that the electorate was largely unaware of.
In 2000, I was the only candidate for Congress in the 8th District to talk about Iraq. Now, of course, everyone talks about Iraq. If more people had been aware of what we were doing in Iraq in 2000 (imposing sanctions that killed 5,000 Iraqi children a month) maybe the war would not have happened.
In 2006, I was the only candidate talking about RMU's runaway electricity rates and the need to reduce and restructure them. Now everyone is talking about them. I was the first candidate in 2006 to talk about a UMR hi-tech research park in Rolla, and the only one to suggest that its construction should be our immediate goal and could lead to far more effective and balanced economic development than retail shopping enterprises. Two years later it appears that this hi-tech research park may soon be a reality.
In short, you don't have to win to accomplish things. Introducing new issues or proposing different solutions to old issues is over half the battle. This is why both Democrats and Republicans in 2000 and 2004 worked so hard to marginalize Ralph Nader and keep him out of the presidential debates.
George McGovern, who in 1972 lost 49 states to Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in U.S. history, was once asked whether he regretted having run for President. He pointed out that within a year of his defeat, the U.S. had adopted his program of withdrawal from Vietnam and within another year his opponent had resigned in disgrace.
So, please consider running for local office, particularly if you have something to say that no other candidate has the courage to talk about.
Don't let our democracy die of apathy. You have until 5 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22 to file.
For information on how and where to file contact the County Clerk's Office, 458-6115.
(Tom Sager is a retired professor at the University of Missouri - Rolla. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website, www.tomsager.org)