At Thursday afternoon’s meeting of Monroe County’s election board, a question decided by the board two months ago was again raised in front of the three-member body: Should municipal elections be held on Nov. 5 in Bloomington, even in districts where none of the races are contested?
On Thursday, the question was brought up during public commentary by Charlotte Zietlow, whose impact on the political life of Monroe County dates back at least to 1972, when she took a seat on the Bloomington city council, which was followed eight years later by her election to the county’s board of commissioners.
Zietlow’s answer: Yes, elections should be held even where races are uncontested. Zietlow remarks to the election board were a kind of lecture on basic civics:
“But I want to say that voting is the primary duty of citizens in a democracy. .. Many people have fought for years to get the right to vote. Women for example. It was only 100 years ago that we were able to vote. … [P]eople of color …were not allowed to vote for a long time. In many cases there’s a great deal of voter suppression. It’s a very valuable thing to be able to vote. And I think about saving money …In a town like this that likes to think of itself as progressive—whatever that means…it is ironic that in an municipal election there will not be a ballot and a voting place for every voter.”
The board’s opposite verdict had already been made, on Aug. 1, when the board voted to hold municipal elections only in Bloomington’s District 2 and District 3. For voters in Bloomington’s other four districts, where there are no contested races, no ballots are being printed, and no polling places will be open—because no elections are being held in those districts.
Zietlow said she was aware that the board had decided against holding elections. Still, she said to the board, “I would urge you to reconsider, if that is possible.” The board did not reconsider.
Board chair Carolyn VandeWiele began her reponse to Zietlow by answering a question about the source of a winning candidate’s authority to carry out their duty as an elected official. If they had any authority, Zietlow had said, it did not come from “the authority of the approval or disapproval of the people.” VandeWiele’s answer: “The authority that they have is given to them by the State of Indiana under the Indiana Election Code…”
VandeWiele defended the board’s decision to act under the election law saying that it was not merely a matter of saving money—but added that the board was “charged with being fiscally responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
Among the considerations given by VandeWiele on Thursday for the board’s August decision were the low turnout in the primaries and the fact that candidates in uncontested races “will be elected as soon as they walk in and vote for themselves.” Another factor was the impact of holding elections with predictably bad turnout on the board’s ability to recruit election workers for next year’s election, VandeWiele said. “[If] they come in and they sit in an office for 13 or 14 hours and do nothing, they don’t come back next year, and we need those workers next year,” VandeWiele said.
VandeWiel agreed that the lack of elections was a “sad statement” but not a sad statement about the election board. She put the responsibility for the lack of elections on the lack of candidates put forward by the Republican Party. “There was only one Republican who stepped up to vote in Monroe County in this year’s election,” VandeWeil said. She was referring to Andrew Guenther, who’s contesting the District 2 city council seat against Democrat Sue Sgambelluri.
Guenther attended Thursday’s meeting of the election board. In early August when the board made its decision, he had spoken during public commentary against holding elections in districts where all races are uncontested.
On Thursday, during public commentary, Jim Faber identified the problem as: “There is no competition…You have to have competitors… ” Faber agreed with the board’s decision, saying, “But I don’t see any reason to have voting when there’s only one person to vote for.”
In her remarks, Zietlow had said, “It is just wrong, I think, not to give people a chance to vote even if there’s only one person to go for—they don’t have to vote for that person. They can not vote for that person as well. And that would show us something.”
VandeWiel and Zietlow agreed that having no elections was not desirable. VandeWiel said, “This is a unique year in Monroe County, and I hope we don’t see another one of these in the future.” Zietlow replied, “This has been a unique year indeed…At this point, I frankly think that none of what you said really expresses to me your understanding of the importance of the vote. The basic importance of the vote in a democracy—I haven’t heard that.”
For the board in early August the decision did not appear all that controversial—it required a unanimous vote, which it got.
Appearing before the board to argue for holding elections, even for those Bloomington districts where races are uncontested was city clerk Nicole Bolden. The citywide race for clerk is uncontested. Bolden told the election board that other candidates she’d spoken with shared her views that elections should be held.
[The Beacon will report separately the business transacted by the election board at its Oct. 3, 2019 meeting.]