Election day is a time on the American calendar that is marked with pageantry and celebration in most American towns.
In the past election Grand Ledge, Michigan was not one of those towns.
“I think we had a 5 percent turnout,” Grand Ledge Mayor Kalmin Smith said. “Most of those were absentee, in terms of how many people showed up to the polls I think we had about 1.5 percent.”
Grand Ledge citizens can be forgiven if they weren’t eager to get to the polls on November 5th, Kalmin Smith and every other member of the Grand Ledge City Council ran unopposed in the election this year.
Smith said this isn’t the first time this has happened in the sleepy village of Grand Ledge. Smith also ran unopposed in 2009 and 2011.
“It’s partly a reflection of small town culture,” he said. “The perception (of potential candidates) is that if someone is doing a good job the public isn’t likely to vote for anyone else.”
Grand Ledge is a city with a population over a little 7,000 people in the northeast corridor of Eaton county. It lies just west of Lansing. The town is on the banks of the Grand River which runs through the center of the town.
Smith said the lack of turmoil that a consistent council brings a community is a good thing, but he does think the public should have choices.
“Occasional change is a good thing,” he said. “I think it’s good when people have choices.”
East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett agreed that choices are what makes a democracy run.
“The important part is that voters have the ability to make a choice,” he said.
Triplett said while he has been a part of city council East Lansing, a city of over 48,000, has not had an uncontested election.
“There’s an opportunity for someone to run (with an election), so if no one steps forward it could mean that the general public is pleased with the direction the city is heading,” he said.
Triplett said campaigns can help facilitate a conversation between the candidates and the public which helps the citizens make better decisions.
“It’s important to have (a) contest of ideas,” he said. “It would be a concern for me if over a number of years you never had a contested election. I think elections force you to communicate.”
Michigan State University professor Dan Lee agrees. Lee is an associate professor in the political science department at MSU and hold a Phd from Duke University. His research is based on congressional elections.
Lee said he doesn’t find many positives with a community of any size holding an election that is uncontested.
“When people are running unopposed it’s not a great thing,” he said. “In general elections are how you hold your representative responsible, it’s hard to do that without an election.”
Lee agreed with Triplett and Smith that the size of the community plays a big role in why the election is sometimes uncontested, but didn’t think that was enough of an excuse to have uncontested elections.
“If you (as an elected official) know no one will oppose you, you can basically do whatever you want,” he said.
Lee said small towns like Grand Ledge tend to be like minded, which could put anyone who thinks differently in a difficult situation.
“Small towns like this are pretty homogenous, everyone has shared values. That doesn’t usually equal good policy,” he said. “The dangerous is who is going to represent the political minorities. Their representation is put in danger.”
Positives of an election that doesn’t have any campaigning or competition were hard to find for Lee, he said the system has a hard time working without competition.
“In an ideal world, everyone would get along and agree on everything, but this isn’t an ideal world,” he said. “People will disagree and if they do they should still be able to be represented.”