The City of Cuney, Texas was supposed to conduct a general election this May, but apparently didn’t. This little failure of democracy didn’t make much of a splash outside of Cherokee County, and was likely of only passing interest to most of the residents in Cherokee County, who may have presumed that the city council had successfully cancelled its election owing to a lack of contested races.
The philosophical and legal underpinnings of election law do not accommodate the notion that an election can be cancelled – the very idea that the fundamental civic exercise of government could be abrogated by an executive act is both profoundly disturbing and counter to centuries of accumulated tradition. But … there is no idea so bad that a legislator somewhere in Texas can’t be found to support it, and so in 1995, Sections 2.051-2.054 of the Texas Election Code were added to Chapter 2, allowing local entities to, well, not technically cancel elections, but to declare unopposed candidates elected without bothering to actually have those elections, assuming that open write-in candidacy wasn’t allowed. The law has been extended and altered somewhat over the years, and now provisions in both Subchapters B and C of Chapter 2 of the Election Code allow for the mooting, preemption, or cancellation of various elections, including (in some circumstances) measure elections.
Why is it a bad idea to allow the preemption of elections that nobody cares about anyway? I mean, if anybody cared about city council elections, or water district elections, or school board elections, they would motivate themselves to run for office. If there aren’t any contested races, why get excited over this non-controversy?
Why? Because without an election, there is no legal ratification of succession to office; there is no final approval by the voters. The voters’ franchise is the distillation of ultimate sovereignty – it cannot legally be delegated to any other entity, and it can’t be legally usurped by any other entity. More practically, without elections, or without at least some official act of formal approval by the voters, the opportunity for tremendous mischief and fraud is created. In the decades since the law changed so that unopposed candidates could be “declared” elected, the tempting opportunity offered to local officials to commit bad acts has been irresistible.
Don’t want an election? Play games with the candidate application forms or deadlines (as happened in Cuney, apparently). Close up the city office early. Call up the challenger and play hardball. Lose paperwork. Deny, obfuscate, obstruct. As if someone’s going to file an election contest and spend $20,000 on legal fees just for the chance to run for an unpaid office on the city council, or on the school board, or whatever. Why would anybody take out a second mortgage on their house just to get on the ballot?
I wanted to illustrate (in a general way) how self-interest, ego, and the general injustices we commit against each other can be magnified and extended by the political process and bad policy choices in the design of election law, and sadly, I have no shortage of examples drawn solely from local, non-partisan elections.
In small towns, things can get really ugly, as the voting process becomes a proxy for open warfare between people who may have known each other since birth. or who may have inherited the burden of continuing the feuds begun by their ancestors.
In that context of sometimes-vicious political warfare, we voters are ill-served by a state law that allows local governments to cancel elections.