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Vacant seats and lack of candidates weaken democracy

Once again this year several local elected seats — mostly in smaller Mahoning and Trumbull County communities — remain vacant, despite the opportunity to elect new officeholders in the recent Nov. 7 election.

In many cases, no one threw his or her hat into the ring in an attempt to seek office, or those that did were disqualified because of errors in the nominating petitions they circulated.

In some would-be competitive races, not enough candidates sought to fill the required number of seats or, worse yet, no candidates at all appeared on the ballot.

Some vacancies that still remain, now weeks beyond the November General Election, include two vacancies on village councils in New Middletown and Washingtonville; one open seat on both Beloit council and Craig Beach council; a Smith Township fiscal officer; and board of education seats in Struthers and West Branch school districts, all in Mahoning County.

There are still more in Trumbull County.

When these types of vacancies exist, it is the constituency that loses.

That’s because such vacancies then are filled by vote of the remaining board members. And if, after a set length of time, the board is unable to fill the post, then the appointment is made by the county probate court judge.

Undeniably, this process triggers the deterioration of our valued civic process. To call the lack of involvement in local democracy “disappointing” is an understatement.

We suspect there are many reasons why this has occurred.

In many cases, attempts to complete and file necessary candidacy paperwork fell short due to silly errors. That’s a shame. Yes, we believe candidates certainly should be able to meet the basic qualifications that include circulating a petition among registered voters. But we also consistently have argued that some tedious hoops created for candidates are overburdensome and should be reviewed and rescinded by state lawmakers.

For instance, we sometimes hear about candidates being disqualified for very minor infractions — like forgetting to sign one of the pages bearing signatures; collecting some signatures on dates before the date shown on the candidacy declaration; or failing to report the total number of signatures per page.

Disqualifications of otherwise worthy candidates seeking to serve their community is utterly ridiculous.

Of course, in other cases, we realize the lack of candidates stems from basic apathy. While apathy toward public service in local government might be a consistent problem, we suspect public service might be even less palatable these days, based on the growing political divide and backlash toward political figures in our country.

We must never allow these types of issues to affect our democracy.

We call on state lawmakers to take a hard look at some at the onerous rules and regulations of petition handling and loosen them, as well as leaving the door open a crack for candidates to fix their errors within a given time period once they’re discovered.

If nothing is done, more potentially strong public servants will spare themselves the nominating grief, and full participatory democracy will continue to crumble in our community.

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