Our View | Unopposed elections tamp discourse on issues

March 15, 2014 

Those hoping for open debate on the issues facing our state legislature during this election year will be sorely disappointed.

Four local incumbents — state Reps. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte; Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township; and Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven; and state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township — will be unopposed in the May primary.

Unless someone runs a spirited write-in campaign, they all will sail back into office in November as well.

A fifth state lawmaker now serving part of Centre County, Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Three Springs, faces a primary opponent in Huntingdon County Treasurer Richard Irvin. No one filed to run on the Democratic side.

We don’t take particular issue with any of the local officeholders, or incumbents in general.

What we do lament is a lack of public discourse during the election season.

We don’t like to see newcomers run unopposed either.

Contested elections drive dialogue with the public concerning the issues of the day.

Candidates squaring off on the ballot can question each other’s stances, past actions, voting records and platforms.

And those candidates are expected to respond, to defend positions and put forth a vision for the future.

Perhaps would-be candidates are turned off by the process.

Running for office is an expensive endeavor, and can open individuals up to intense personal scrutiny.

Or perhaps at the heart of this unfortunate situation is our general apathy toward the election process, which is supposed to be a foundation of our society.

We don’t run for office and we don’t vote.

Two years ago, with many of these same offices in play, only 21 percent of the 89,000 registered voters in Centre County went to the polls. And that was a presidential election year.

Denise Watts, of State College, noticed the trickle of voters that day in 2012 and wondered aloud how people could disregard the opportunity to help select their leaders.

“I don’t believe people are entitled to an opinion unless they get out and exercise their civic duty,” she told a CDT reporter outside her polling place.

But blank slots on the ballot is a concern that goes beyond voter disengagement.

The regional and county leaders of our political parties have an obligation to recruit and support individuals willing to step forward.

Do the Democrats in our region believe Benninghoff and Corman can’t be beaten?

Have Republicans decided that they have no one in their ranks to challenge Hanna and Conklin?

Is so much attention being paid to the governor’s race that our local offices have been left unattended?

We miss the unrest that fueled legislative elections in the years after the infamous late-night pay-raise vote, which cost many incumbents their seats in the General Assembly.

Not because we were glad to see all of those lawmakers ousted, but because those hotly contested races brought forth a fiery debate on the issues facing our state, county and communities.

Those important topics include education, roads and infrastructure, social services, programs for veterans, community agencies, jobs and the economy, and health care.

Instead of an open discussion of the issues that might lead to meaningful decision-making from our elected leaders, we’ll be left in 2014 with the sound of silence.

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