Why Local Elections Matter

Among all the drama of the Trump presidency, and with the Fight for Our Lives in full swing, voters in the United States are activated and excited about politics in a way that people have not seen in many years. Despite the surge in people registering to vote and actively participating in the national political discussion, America’s democratic system is still nursing one of its best-kept secrets: No one actually votes. As much as pundits and politicians alike are often seen encouraging people to do so, the latter usually preceding raucous applause, it seems as if very few people actually take their advice seriously.

Although the US has one of the higher rates of voting according to the number of registered voters who actually show up on election day at 86.8% in 2016, it has one of the lowest voter rates among all eligible adults at 55.7%, according to Pew Research Center. For comparison, 82.6% of all voting-age Swedes showed up to vote in their last election, as did 72.9% of Koreans and 67.9% of French adults. Especially when you consider that turnout was considered by the French to be particularly low in their last election, and it was still higher than it’s been in the US since 1900 (when women and most minorities weren’t allowed to vote), it doesn’t take a professional pundit to figure out that America has a democracy problem.

This isn’t just a problem in presidential or midterm elections, however. The numbers in state and local elections are even worse, with the average turnout in local elections standing at merely 30%—half of a presidential year turnout, which was itself considered way below average, according to the U.S. Vote Foundation. This is particularly alarming, as although local government would seem to be the least important level of government, it’s probably the most impactful to people’s everyday lives. At the end of the day, whatever drama is going on in Congress or in Trump’s White House probably isn’t going to affect your daily routine or the problems you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. The decisions that state and local government make, however, can.

For example, while a plan to rebuild and expand our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is something both major parties supposedly support, there hasn’t been one even debated on the floor of Congress since 2009. Meanwhile, the decision by officials in the Flint, Michigan city government to replace the city’s water system with cheap materials and drawing off an untested water source in April 2015, had an almost immediate impact on the city’s 100,000 residents. The cheap piping and tainted source led to mass contamination of the city’s tap water, leading to a widespread outbreak of lead poisoning and other diseases that still persist to this day. Through the apathy of city officials and the misconduct of state environmental regulators, several of whom lost their jobs, thousands of people have fallen ill and the entire city has been forced to drink only bottled water for over 2 years.

Although every city isn’t a Flint or a Denver—which is facing similar problems along with nearly 20 other American cities—we can see how the decisions of state and local officials can have a drastic, immediate, and constant impact on the daily lives of their constituents. And maybe the drinking water in your town is safe, but maybe it won’t be someday. When that day comes, you’d want to know who is dealing with it. You’d want to feel comfortable with the elected officials you’ve helped choose to serve you and your community, and rest easy with the knowledge that if they don’t fix the problem, you’ll know exactly who not to vote for next time around.

The reality, though, is that really the only people who vote in state and local elections, which make up the vast majority of all elections in the US, is a fraction of the elderly population and an even smaller fraction of the middle-aged population. If young people and activists really want to change politics in America in a lasting way and fundamentally alter the power structure in the country, we should emphasize participation in elections for local positions like city council, school board and mayor; state elections for the legislature and supreme court; and governor and statewide office. Until we do, no matter how much Washington changes, politicians that do not represent the majority of America will continue to hold most of the levels of power.