City of Rushford Mayor Chris Hallum, elected to office in 2009, hasn’t had a challenger in the last three mayoral elections. Although Hallum won last Tuesday’s city election with 126 votes, which was 86.3 percent of the turnout (there were 20 write-in votes), he would like to see challengers step up to make the mayoral race a contest.

He feels one way to do that is to change the city’s voting to even years when county, state and federal offices are elected to generate more interest in the local election. In this year’s election on Nov. 7, no candidates filed for the two council seats and the turnout of around 150 is far less than the 2016 presidential election when more than 900 people in the city of Rushford cast ballots.

Elections on odd years aren’t the norm in Minnesota. Rushford was one of just 28 cities that had elections last week and some of those were for special issues, such as Chatfield’s swimming pool. Chatfield elects city officials in elections on even years.

Although a change for Rushford would likely increase the number of voters turning out at the polls, a switch in election years may not solve the problem of finding challengers to Hallum’s position as mayor.

Unopposed elections for mayor in Minnesota and five other states are becoming the norm, according to a report from the Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The study focused on elections of mayors in municipalities in California, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and Virginia, which include roughly 10 percent of the country’s cities. The researchers evaluated elections from 2000 to 2016 in these six states with 1,899 municipalities and 8,452 unique elections.

The key finding in the study revealed that around half of all mayoral elections in the six states had just one candidate, usually an incumbent. That trend is on the rise: On average 60 percent of mayoral contests in the six states examined in 2016 involved only one candidate.

At first glance, that finding may seem to be contradicted in Minnesota as recent news in the state has focused on last week’s hotly contested elections in Minneapolis, which had 16 candidates, and St. Paul, which had 10 people on the ballot.

However the study found that there is a population disparity in unopposed elections as just 15 percent of contests in cities with more than 50,000 people had only one candidate. In contrast, unopposed elections were particularly prevalent in small towns; in cities with 500 or fewer residents, 73 percent of elections were uncontested. They were uncontested in 53 percent of the elections in cities of 500 to 2,500 people.

On the surface, that is a concerning finding as it indicates a problem in rural areas. Then again, it might not.

“An interesting puzzle is that despite the high rates of unopposed elections in small towns, these are the same places that have the highest rates of voter turnout in their mayoral races — and this holds regardless of election timing,” said Melissa Marschall, director of LEAP, a professor of political science in Rice’s School of Social Sciences and the report’s author. “We tend to think that the health of local democracy depends on having electoral competition, but perhaps in small towns, where people are much more likely to know the candidates, norms of civility and communitarianism might discourage competition.”

Another factor could be a different mindset in rural areas. The report found that unopposed incumbents were the norm in mayoral elections with more than two-thirds featuring an incumbent on the ballot.

Marschall ponders whether local residents in small cities treat serving as mayor as part of their civic duty, which means it is possible that political culture might also dictate that residents not challenge an incumbent who steps forward to serve in this capacity.

That thought seems valid from a superficial overview, which is really the only way available to measure small city elections.

“This finding warrants further empirical investigation,” said Marschall. “Indeed, since small and medium-sized cities have been almost completely ignored by research, we know very little about how they are governed or what their electoral processes and outcomes look like.”

Further research really would be beneficial; our newspaper, which covers all local elections, has much information, but not enough centralized data over time to pinpoint trends.

Some area cities in 2016 somewhat mirrored Rushford’s 2017 election. For example, Chatfield had a mayor run unopposed and two council seats (out of three) with no candidates on the ballot.  

However, the majority of small cities in the area had at least candidates on the 2016 ballot for every position. Some, though, such as Harmony and Spring Valley filled just enough for each ballot position, but had no contests in the election.

In the last election in 2016, several area cities did have choices, including mayor. Mabel even had three people filing for mayor. Also, Peterson had five people running for two council positions and Canton had four council candidates seeking two positions.

Although the study wasn’t broken down by state, Minnesota, which almost always leads the nation in voter turnout, seems to have a population that is more engaged in the civic process than most states. On the surface, that appears likely to lead to more candidates, at least in many cases, even in small towns.

However, in area small town elections it also seems that unopposed contests are more common lately as are lines showing up blank on the ballots because not even one candidate filed.

It would be nice if “further empirical investigation” is pursued, as the report’s author recommends. In light of the last presidential election, there has been a lot of speculation about what makes rural voters tick, but little concrete data to pin down what drives the votes in rural areas.

An objective, factual study would lead to a better understanding of why so many rural people come out to the polls, what the thoughts are behind their voting decisions and, more importantly, why so few of them desire to put their own names on the ballot.