Uncontested local elections a growing norm in Butler County

11:20 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017 Butler County
There are fewer local races to decide by voters this local-year election than in past local elections years. FILE PHOTO

There are 23 potential contested local races in Butler County this November, pending certification of candidates later this month. A nearly 10-race decline from the 2009 local election year.

The downward trend of contested national and local races have been evident in the past several years, said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.

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“The frightening part is it’s a pretty difficult hurdle for democracy,” Niven said of the lack of contested races.

The question of how to make elections more competitive has been asked year after year, and some of that involves voter apathy.

A Pew Research Center study in 2006 indicated politicians and political experts had “concern” over the lack of competitiveness in U.S. elections, but that concern was not shared by the public. Some experts believe the lack of political competition is due to low voter turnout.

Voter turnout in local elections in Butler County typically is sub-30 percent unless there’s a statewide issue — which there are two this year — driving turnout.

Wednesday was the filing deadline for local races within the county, except for Hamilton mayor and Hamilton and Middletown city councils, which have an Aug. 24 filing deadline. Candidates yet to be certified will have their petitions reviewed and the board of elections will vote to certify candidates for November’s ballot on Aug. 21. The Hamilton and Middletown city council races will be certified at the Aug. 28 board meeting.

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In this election cycle, the local election following a presidential election, there are just more than 40 Butler County offices to be elected.

There’s been a steady decline in contested local elections since 2009. In 2009, there were 31 contested races out of 61 total offices up for election.

Niven said there are really two ways to look at the lack of contested races: either there was no one upset enough to run, or people feel they can’t win so why bother.

The latter school of thought, he said, especially at the local level, is pretty far from the truth but that’s not an uncommon thought.

“A lot of folks have no idea how easy it is to get on the ballot and to win one of these races,” Niven said. “The number one that keeps people from running is they are of the conclusion that they couldn’t possibly win.”

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So when voters show up at the polls, or vote early at home or at the board of elections, and sees no competition, the choice is being taken out of the voters’ hands and that can be frustrating, Niven said. It’s also “worrisome because it means there can’t be a healthy debate because there’s no one to have it,” he said.

Miami University Regionals political science professor John Forren, who pays close attention to local politics, says seeing 50 percent of local races contested may not necessarily be a decline in local democracy.

Depending on which races are being contested, there may be more choice than the numbers show.

“In a place like Butler County, which has been difficult terrain for Democrats for decades, I’d say that the idea that half of the races are going to be contested is actually a sign of increasing competition rather than a sign of decline,” he said.

Forren said it’s a sign of a healthy democracy when there are contested races because competition between candidates means the voters will more often have a real choice when it comes to who will govern “and by extension, what policies will be carried out by government.”

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