A lack of candidates for local offices is plaguing Maine towns, while others face hyper-competitive races stacked with seasoned candidates and newcomers.
Few candidates have filed to run for public offices in Belfast, Rockland, Old Town and Brewer, making races there uncompetitive. In some cases, there aren’t enough declared candidates to fill all the open seats.
Maine is seeing that disparate interest in local politics as politicization around school boards, public health policies and election officials has reached a national fever pitch, leading to contentious meetings among local government bodies that generally don’t see such intense controversy.
That combination of polarization and increased scrutiny over masking, vaccines and structural racism explains some of the motivation behind people alternatively getting involved and staying away from local politics, said Anna Kellar, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Maine and Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
“For some people, that is motivating them to get involved or get more involved than they were before,” Kellar said. “At the same time, we’re seeing people who might have seen those offices as kind of a low-key, volunteer activity that was mostly about just keeping things running smoothly, the way they always have.”
In western states, public health officials have been fired from their jobs or resigned in droves, citing threats from irate citizens who have targeted them for their role in implementing COVID-19 policies. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland also ordered the FBI to investigate “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff” nationwide.
Maine officials have largely been spared these threats, but this rancor has touched a few communities throughout the state.
The board of Regional School Unit 13 in the Rockland area moved its meeting to a remote setting last week for safety after a statewide anti-mask group said it would appear there to protest the board’s mask mandate.
In August, more than 15 Hampden-area parents spoke out against a mask mandate when the Regional School Unit 22 school board was first deciding what school reopening guidelines to implement.
They cited reasons such as their commitment to “freedom,” aversion to “creeping authoritarianism” and parental choice to explain their opposition to requiring masks in schools. RSU 22 schools now require masks for all staff, students and visitors after a ballot tabulation error prompted a new vote.
The initial mask-optional vote also prompted a large reaction from parents who favored a mask requirement, motivating them to show up in full force at the next meeting, where board members voted to institute the now-mandatory masking policy.
This November, Hampden has twice the number of school board candidates as there are seats to fill.
And in Poland, a Minot parent likened the Regional School Unit 16 board’s mandatory masking policy to human trafficking during a meeting earlier this month.
“It is evident that your actions are similar to child predators,” she said, citing a Bible verse about divine retribution.
Steven Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, chalked up the renewed interest in and attention on school boards to the anxiety around school reopenings during a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and the accessibility of remote municipal meetings.
“They didn’t physically have to go to a meeting, so you ended up with people beginning to pay a little more attention last year,” he said. “There was a great interest in what was going to be happening with fall sports last year, and so that also garnered quite a bit of interest. So there’s an increased public participation.”
The fervor surrounding local politics also belies other issues such as a lack of general knowledge about what local offices do, Kellar said.
“There’s less local news, and we’re seeing a rise of some of these false websites that act like they’re a local news source, but they’re really paid-for content that often has a strong political slant,” they said.
“There’s also just such a fundamental gap in our civics education. There’s no point where you ever learn, ‘What does the Select Board do,’ what decisions get made at the local level. That is simply not a part of our curriculum at all.”
Kellar noted that while “certain loud voices” have complained about “divisiveness,” increased polarization isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“The flip side of that is people who have not been a part of the process of local government before are trying to claim some space in it,” Kellar said. “And I think that that can be a really positive thing.”
The League of Women Voters is trying to combat misinformation and increase civic participation by publishing voter guides this year for 25 local town elections, with plans to scale up to state elections next year. The organization has also surveyed high school social studies teachers to gauge what would increase students’ interest in Maine government.
In Bangor, the league hosted a forum for School Committee and City Council candidates earlier this month, as it has in previous years.
“What we heard overwhelmingly was, ‘We want content that doesn’t exist’” about how local politics and government operate, Kellar said of the survey results. A number of resources exist to educate students about national politics and American history, but there are few resources to educate students about Maine politics and local government.
“That’s where so many decisions that impact people’s lives are getting made, and if you want to have an impact on your community, getting involved [and] doing it at the local level is going to be far more impactful than your vote for president,” Kellar said.
BDN writer Sawyer Loftus contributed to this report.