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Democracy in the Twilight Zone

You are now entering the Twilight Zone.

Imagine if you will, a United States in which John Boehner is just a guy running a plastics company in addition to struggling in an unpaid position as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Imagine if you will, that Gabrielle Giffords is running the tire warehouse her grandfather founded while commuting back and forth between Washington D.C. and Arizona in order to represent that state’s 8th district. Imagine, if you will, that Boehner, Giffords and all other members of Congress are struggling to keep the legislative branch functioning, simply out of a sense of civic duty. Also because not enough people are willing to run for public office.

Perhaps more people would be willing to serve, if there was much awareness of the elections and the importance of the job. However, television and radio reporters don’t cover Congress at all. In the newspapers, advertising sales have fallen off so there is only enough money to finance nine or ten column inches of Congressional coverage every few issues. Election coverage is so nominal it consists primarily of candidates’ names and the paper’s endorsement a few days before the election. Even this information is in fine print buried several layers deep in the online editorial pages, difficult for the prospective voter to find.

Most voters, as a matter of fact, are not aware of when elections are being held. And — if they are aware, — can find little information to help decide among candidates. Candidates, themselves, have minimal funds to spend on campaigns and are so busy seeing to their day-to-day business that campaign flyers and websites are slapdash affairs, if they exist at all. Not all candidates even bother to run a campaign.

Over the past decade, political scientists (those who still exist now that universities have been balancing their budgets by doing away with degree programs pursued by only one or two students in an academic year) have been tracking a trend in which voters elect candidates solely on the basis of name recognition. For example, four members of Congress and three Senators named Bush are currently serving, and only one of them is related to former Presidents George H.W., George W., Jeb and Jenna Bush.

Okay, I made all that up. But here’s the Twilight Zone twist: Other than the joke about a Bush dynasty, what I have described is actually happening on the local level in our democracy. It’s happening here where I live in the North Kansas City School District.

Our board president works for a human resources consulting company. One board member is a personal injury lawyer. Another is retired from our local electrical utility company. Yet another works in marketing and government relations for a commercial and residential real estate company. In addition to being business people, they live in the district and are our neighbors. Can you  imagine the immense responsibility the board members serving last year and the year before felt when property values plummeted, and these normal, everyday people were left with the responsibility of educating more than 18,000 children on a budget that had to be reduced by at least nine million dollars? Among other cost-cutting measures, they had to decide which of the people who worked for the district — which of their neighbors — were to lose their jobs in these challenging economic times.

Despite the challenges, six candidates stepped forward to run for office last spring. Our local newspaper had interviewed all of them, was preparing to run the interviews in order to inform the electorate … and then went out of business. There wasn’t enough advertising revenue to continue feeding paper to the printing presses. Eventually, the only coverage of the election was buried in the online edition of a larger, regional newspaper. This coverage might have been minimally informative if voters had known to go looking for it. However, when asking people who they were casting their votes for, I found the most common response was: “Oh, is there a school board election coming up?”

One candidate last year was an incumbant with a solid reputation for his service on the board, guaranteed to be re-elected. Three candidates — an IT guy, a union employee and a stay-at-home mom who had worked as a corporate engineer — were aggressively campaigning. Another candidate did appear at the county democratic club’s school board election forum but didn’t bother to mention he had experience in academic administration. The final candidate was not an incumbant, did not run a campaign as far as I could tell, and did not appear at the forum.  He won the election.

This candidate had previously run for a seat in the Missouri General Assembly, which he lost. My theory is that — despite the lack of a campaign for the school board — he won, because many voters recognized his name and marked the box next to it on the ballot, even though they knew little or nothing else about him. (In all fairness, I have to add that in his campaign for the statewide seat, he did emphasize the importance of education).

April 5 is the date of our next school board election. There are three open seats this year. Two incumbents filed for the first two seats and are running unopposed. This leaves only one seat contested. The stay-at-home mom who is also a corporate engineer was slated to slug it out at the polls with an attorney who is a former school board member. Then the attorney decided she was too busy to run after all, and now the district is trying to determine whether it needs to hold an election at all.

If there are no elections, there will be three people sitting on our school board, administering millions of our taxpayer dollars and overseeing the education of our children, three people who have not been elected by the taxpayers. Not wanting to be too glib here, but that sounds an awful lot like taxation without representation to me.

Citizens, beware. If we don’t start taking more responsibility for informing ourselves and for voting in local elections — even stepping forward to run for office, ourselves — we just may be entering … The Twilight Zone.

_____________________

Photo credit: royalty-free image purchased from Dreamstime.com

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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.

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