Boy waving a Puerto Rican flag.

Uncontested Elections Are Bad for Democracy: Worthington School Board

Interesting story from small town Minnesota about a school board forcing one of their only Latino teachers to remove his Puerto Rico and Pride flags. That’s a whole thing, and while I have feelings about it, I want to talk about elections instead.

Why it matters: Because Worthington School Board, like many of our local boards and councils, has a problem with uncontested elections.

The Debate

Here’s a quick summary of the story (offered because online stories often disappear, though read them while you can—the Sahan Journal does a good job with a broad overview and the local Worthington Globe goes more in depth on the vote [plus coverage of the months-long debate; huh, support local journalism, right?]):

  • Context: Worthington, Minnesota is a small town with vastly changing demographics. The town is now 41% Latino, though that’s not reflected in local leadership. “You have people in power who do not understand the diversity they live in,” said teacher José Morales Collazo. After multiple attempts to engage Latino and LGBTQ+ students were shot down by district leadership, Morales Collazo decided to put up Puerto Rico and Pride flags in his classroom.
  • The debate: After a parent complaint over the Pride flag making them “uncomfortable” and months of community conversation, the school board voted 4-1 (with two members absent) to force Morales Collazo to remove his Puerto Rico and Pride flags.

Elections Matter

Regardless of how you feel about that result, recent local elections directly led to that vote.

Here’s School Board Member Erin Schutte Wadzinski, an immigration lawyer elected to the board in 2022:

“I hope the community sees the importance of civic engagement and how critical it is to elect leaders who are committed to serving the best interests of everyone in their community,” she said. “I’d love to see our school board become more representative of the district’s diverse student body.”

Uncontested Elections

The problem? People aren’t running for school board. Worthington School Board has a string of uncontested or barely contested races:

  • 2023: Uncontested – 1 candidate for 1 seat (special election to fill a vacancy; in races that usually see 2,000-3,000 votes to win, the candidate won with less than 200 votes).
  • 2022: Under contested – 4 candidate for 3 seats.
  • 2020: Under contested – 5 candidates for 4 seats.
  • 2018: Fully contested – 6 candidates for 3 seats.
  • 2016: Uncontested – 4 candidates for 4 seats.
  • 2014: Under contested – 4 candidates for 3 seats.
  • 2012: Uncontested – 4 candidates for 4 seats.
  • 2010: Under contested – 4 candidates for 3 seats.
  • 2008: Under contested – 5 candidates for 4 seats.
  • 2006: Almost contested: 5 candidates for 3 seats.
  • 2004: Fully contested: 8 candidates for 4 seats.

Out of 11 races, 27% were completely uncontested, 45% had only one candidate more than seats available, and only 18% were fully contested with twice the candidates running for seats available.

So in 20 years, nearly three-quarters of Worthington School Board elections were uncontested or barely contested.

But Worthington is far from alone. In my own school district, ISD 197, 50% of the last four elections were uncontested. Going back to 1988, 35% of West St. Paul’s City Council races have been uncontested.

Why Does It Matter?

This is important because uncontested elections are bad for democracy. If there’s no race, there’s no debate. No one talks about the issues. There’s no conversation to even consider what the issues are, never mind publicly airing ideas and sharpening proposals. Some uncontested candidates will answer questions, but many won’t.

Even if it’s a landslide, a contested election keeps our local officials honest and accountable.

A lack of competition can lead to the same people running things, which can lead to consistency and competency. It can also lead to stagnation and fear of change. For what it’s worth, three of Worthington’s seven school board members have served more than 20 years. Two of them started in the 1990s (both will be up for re-election this year).

I don’t share any of this information to disparage anyone. I don’t know much about Worthington, their issues, or their candidates.

But on that 4-1 vote? The lone no vote was elected in 2022. Three of the four yes votes were elected more than 20 years ago.

The Point: Run for Something

My long-winded point here is that people need to run for local office. Local positions like school board, city council, county boards, and more have a tremendous effect on our day-to-day lives. And these races often go uncontested.

  • Raise issues: At the very least, you’re forcing debate. You’re encouraging ideas to be presented and defended. Universal income and Medicare for all (regardless of how you feel about those issues) are just two examples of issues that got a huge boost from losing candidates talking about them.
  • Even a loss can win: Often in these local races people lose first, and then win the second time. That’s the case for half the candidates in my last school board race. Two of the current West St. Paul Council members lost their first race. One of Worthington’s current school board members went that route. But you have to run and run again.
  • Deep bench: Running in local elections creates a deeper bench of candidates. Let me add something unpopular: Even if you like the candidate, I’d still rather see a contested election. Yes, I like that candidate, but they should still have to answer questions and work for the job. Maybe they’re good, but maybe someone is better. Multiple candidates means more organizing, more connections, more experience, and (best of all) more community engagement.
  • Community engagement: Creating that community engagement is key. I’ve seen uncontested elections. No one talks about them. There’s nothing to cover. The community tunes out, even as vital issues come up. The 2019 ISD 197 election was uncontested. In 2020 they voted to change the name of the high school, and picked a new one in 2021. A lot of angry people weren’t paying any attention in 2019. (By the way, that 2021 election had the most candidates in 30 years; ironically, the name change wasn’t really a campaign issue and didn’t seem to factor into the end result.)
  • It’s good for democracy: Uncontested races have terrible turnout. But when there’s a real race, people come out and vote. That’s a huge win for democracy. (It’s also a win for every other race on the ballot. Amanda Litman of Run for Something calls this “reverse coattails” and she argues it will be the story of the 2024 election.)

This fall the Worthington School Board will have three seats on the ballot. West St. Paul will have three Council seats and the mayor.

Who’s going to run?

Work for Democracy

I’m not saying running for office is easy. It’s hard, hard work. Sometimes it’s crushing work. This fall I watched the hardest working candidate come in last. But it’s vital and important.

We have to work for our democracy. We have to fight for it.

If you see a news story like this Worthington school board flag issue and it makes you feel a certain way, then you either need to run for office or help someone else run.

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