From major news networks down to the pipeline of social media platforms and even casual household conversations, one topic had always been like an unskippable ad on YouTube: 2020 US Presidential Elections. But this wide media coverage on the general elections may have compromised an equally important topic which is the local elections.
Last November 3, the US Presidential Elections grabbed both national and international headlines potentially garnering a historic voter turnout. Bloomberg initially projected over 157 to 165 million votes which is roughly 68 to 72 percent of the citizen voting-age population. The current tally is now at 157 million and states are still counting.
But your vote whether it’s for Biden or Trump, Harris or Pence, is as influential as who you vote for on the local level. While who occupies the highest office can be very detrimental on a large scale, local office directly affects your daily life. That is, it covers police department budgeting, education reform, lower level courts, and local infrastructures. This is where tangible progress is experienced by constituents.
In a 2016 study by Portland State University, part of the Who Votes for Mayor project, researchers have discovered an “abysmally low” voter turnout for mayoral elections in America’s 30 largest cities. Data have shown a less than 15% turnout in 10 cities including New York City, Baltimore, Dallas, and Miami while Las Vegas, Fortworth, and Dallas, Texas recorded single digit voter turnout.
In addition, the project also revealed several findings such as that younger voters are not participating with 46.7 percent of registered voters are over the age of 65 compared to a 9 percent aged 18 to 34. As a result. The median age of those actually casting the ballots is nearly a full generation older than the median age of the eligible voting population which implies policies that may not fit the majority of the community. There’s also uneven distribution of voting with dramatic differences in voter turnouts in certain neighborhoods thus terms like voting “oases” and “deserts” within the same city.
Over the years, this low voter turnout for local elections has gradually grown into a trend. According to a Harvard Political Review by Matthew Gross, the 2017 New York City mayoral election recorded only 21.7% turnout which is a significant drop from the over 90% voter participation in the boasted 1953 New York City mayoral election. The trend can also be seen in many other major American cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In a separate academic study which examined 340 mayoral elections across 144 US cities, it discovered that the factors leading to such low turnout rate are “lack of campaign spending, low voter mobilization, and the consequent decrease in media coverage.” Notably, low mayoral voter turnout in Chicago was due to voters who felt that they have been left behind by their local government.
A 2018 John Hopkins University study pulled out the statistics that surround this low voter turnout trend. According to the study, many Americans lack the civic knowledge to distinguish jurisdictional issues whether which level of government is responsible. About 25% of study participants do not know whether the federal or state government is in charge of law enforcement. Additionally, 30% are not aware which government creates and enforces zoning laws. Benjamin Ginsberg, political science professor at John Hopkins University and one of the study’s researchers, pointed out that the potential cause for this ignorance can be attributed to insufficient media coverage.
In the review, Gross noted the importance of local elections. He said, “The stakes of local elections might not be as widely reflected in the media as they are about the Presidential Election, but local elections have real consequences.”
Gross cited the New Jersey issue wherein local officials filed a lawsuit against companies that contributed to the contamination of drinking water. “The maintenance of water system infrastructure could be the difference between residents having clean drinking water and those same residents facing a whole host of health issues from unsanitary tap water,” Gross stated. He also put in a contrast situation in Flint, Michigan who also lacked clean drinking water but local officials aggravated the issue as they refused to renovate the pipes causing the water to be contaminated.
On this note, he said that issues such as drinking water (under infrastructures) is covered by the local office and not the federal government. Since this is under their jurisdiction, they have the power to innovate solutions further emphasizing the importance of votes in local elections. Moreover, the potential for increased attention with a higher voter turnout rate can gear local politics into ameliorating such situations and improving quality of life.
But success on this particular matter should not only heavily depend on one side which is the media. Civic engagement in local politics is also a responsibility on the side of individuals. That is, individuals are encouraged to be proactive by researching a candidate and his/her stances on issues and voting wisely based on that information.
According to Nylah Burton of Shonda Land, “Federal elections can seem overwhelming for many people, precisely because it feels — and is — such a large scope. But municipal elections and offices, despite being smaller, are far more accessible.” She also added, “ In local elections, a candidate’s constituency has the opportunity to get to know their officials, to spend time with them, debate them, and understand them more as people. They’re more readily available, which means they’re even more likely to hear your concerns and represent them better when it comes to making decisions that directly affect your community.”
In the age of digital media, everything is even handed on a silver platter with information available with just a few clicks. One way to ensure that you are updated with the voting schedule for your local election which may coincide with the November poll like this year or during May, you can sign up for election day reminders on Vote.org.
You can also check Ballotpedia which provides primary information on candidates and their backgrounds and their policies. This is a good start to know who is running for office in your city and what policies they advocate to know which ones reflect the change that needs to be done in your community.
It is not the time to be apolitical or be selective in participation. Your vote matters.