The trend of uncontested races for town boards appears to be continuing. While more than a month remains for potential candidates to step up to run for office in the April 9 annual town election, so far only one of the 11 races on the ballot offers voters an actual choice.
The sole contested race to date is shaping up as a three-person field for two seats on the Select Board, where incumbent Marcus Nelson created an opening by opting not to seek a second term. Incumbent board member Kevin Keane will seek reelection.
Assuming all candidates fulfill their signature requirements, Keane will be competing with Josh Levy, a veteran member of the appointed Finance Committee, and Tina Burgos, current chair of the appointed Human Rights Committee.
The other 10 town offices on this year’s ballot have yet to attract enough candidates to provide the town’s 24,000 registered voters options, something that has become a familiar pattern in recent town election history.
Needham’s lack of candidates reflects a national trend of diminished civic engagement when it comes to participation in local government — at least as measured by electoral activity.
Since 2016, more than 80% of the races for townwide office in Needham have been uncontested. That is, the number of candidates who qualified for the ballot was equal to or less than the number of seats up for election.
There was not a single contested townwide race in 2016. Not surprisingly, less than 5% of all registered voters went to the polls that year.
In the seven elections since 2016, there have been 13 contested races out of a possible 75, and turnout percentages have most often been in the low teens or high single digits.
The lone exception to this trend was the 2021 election, the only one in the past decade where the two marquee town offices — Select Board and School Committee — were both contested races. Presented with actual choices, 5,697 voters — nearly 25% of those registered — found their way to the polls that day.
Otherwise, the past decade has been marked by widespread voter absence. Only three of 10 Select Board races have been challenged since 2014. School Committee and Planning Board elections were contested only twice over that same period. The elections in 2022 and 2020 offered only one contested race.
It’s not that Needhamites are averse to voting. The 2020 presidential election drew more than 20,000 voters, and the 2022 state elections attracted more than 15,000.
This trend is certainly not unique to Needham. An analysis of more than 10,000 local elections across 17 states by the election research organization Ballotpedia found that more than 60% of local general elections in 2023 went uncontested.
Needham was not part of the study, but if it had been the town would have dragged those numbers down a bit further, a fact that disappoints Carol Patey, president of the League of Women Voters of Needham.
The League provides a range of voter services, such as holding registration drives, hosting candidate nights, publishing voter guides on local candidates and ballot questions, producing a “how-to” video on running for local office and either organizing or supporting issue-oriented community events.
Patey noted that, although the League expends considerable effort to encourage voter registration and participation, the dearth of candidates contributes to low turnout.
“Our high turnout years are years in which we have contested races,” she said. “Contested definitely helps.”