The Kinder Institute at Rice University recently completed a study of mayoral elections in Indiana. (The reason for the focus on the Hoosier State was the partisan nature of our mayoral elections; elsewhere, evidently, elections for municipal offices tend to be nonpartisan.)
The report, Mayoral Elections in Indiana 2003-2015 examined a variety of facets of mayoral elections in the Hoosier State, analyzing mayoral races in 474 general elections and 706 primary elections in more than 120 Indiana cities. (To be candid, I didn’t think Indiana had 120 cities….)
The Institute documented a swing toward the GOP over the time period studied. That didn’t come as a big surprise; the small cities and towns that dot the Hoosier state tend to be more rural in nature, and to reflect the more conservative politics of rural Indiana.
What did surprise (and depress) me was the following “data point”:
In addition to the partisan shift, the report also found that more than 20 percent of all mayoral elections in Indiana go uncontested. This issue is especially acute in the state’s smallest cities. For example, in cities with less than 5,000 residents, nearly 29 percent of mayoral elections were uncontested, compared with 13 percent in the state’s largest cities.
Evidently, citizens in Indiana–and especially in our state’s smaller communities– are uninterested in the management of those communities. That seems counter-intuitive for a whole lot of reasons.
It’s understandable that the prospect of a partisan rough-and-tumble would turn off potential candidates for office, especially in this age of nasty politicking. But the hardball politics of larger communities are rarely on exhibit in small towns where everyone knows everyone else.
Furthermore, the public management issues in small towns tend to be very practical: policing and fire protection (the latter often handled by a volunteer brigade), collecting trash, paving streets, retaining the merchants on Main Street. These are issues far removed from the ideological wars that characterize campaigns for state and federal offices, but their proper oversight directly and substantially affects community residents.
Tending one’s own garden only takes you so far. Like it or not, we live with other people, and the rules and processes we put in place to regulate our interactions with our fellow-citizens affect our daily lives.
So why is it that, in one-fifth of Indiana’s cities and towns, no one cares enough to take on the responsibility for managing those processes and providing essential services? And why is the problem more acute in the smaller communities that we think of as more “neighborly” and interdependent?