Today is Election Day in the U.S., but Americans will stay home in droves. Why? Because these are local elections, not the every-four-years presidential circus or even the even-year elections of senators, members of Congress, state legislators and most governors. Local elections matter, but with the media focused on the 2016 presidential candidates, voters may not realize the high stakes in the thousands of local races.
The United States is notorious for having one of the lowest voter turnout rates among industrialized nations. For example, in the 2012 presidential election, it ranked near the bottom of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with only 54 percent of eligible voters showing up to cast their ballots. Local elections see even lower turnouts, frequently with less than 25 percent voter participation. With fewer people voting, off-year elections multiply the influence of wealthier, whiter voters who are more likely to vote. That needs to change for the sake of American communities, schools and democracy itself.
Local governments decide on a wide range of issues that affect the daily lives of their residents. City, county, school board and other local government elections often carry immediate consequences for constituents. Among other things, local officials make decisions about schools, transportation, business development, zoning and housing, law enforcement and courts and taxes.
Take schools: Neither the president nor Congress can have as much effect on local schools as the school board. Nearly 90 percent of elementary and secondary school funding comes from local and state taxes. School boards hire superintendents and set policy. Other locally determined policies include attendance zones, busing, discipline policy, textbook adoption, curriculum and funding.
City, county and other local governments make decisions about public housing. Local officials decide when and whether to evict low-income residents and sell out to real estate developers. Community leaders’ decisions affect the viability of businesses and the livability of neighborhoods, including ordinances that establish commercial and residential zones. Local governments maintain streets and roads, patching potholes and plowing snow. They also make decisions about sidewalks, bike lanes and the safe co-existence of all kinds of traffic.
The questions facing local governments vary from one jurisdiction to another. In Flint, Michigan, local government decides if the city should get water from the Flint River or Lake Huron. In Seminole County, Florida, local officials determine the fate of black bears in residential areas and whether to mandate use of bear-resistant trash cans. In Indiana the Delaware County Council is debating how much money it should allocate to rural fire departments. In Iowa the city of Des Moines is suing three counties to protect its water quality.
Half a century ago, big cities such as Los Angeles and New York and Chicago reported much higher vote totals for local elections. In 1953, 93 percent of eligible voters in New York City went to the polls for the mayoral election. That was unusual, even by mid-20th-century standards, but back then, off-year local election turnouts of more than 60 percent were common.
Ironically, local elections were moved to off years to focus attention on them after they began to get lost amid national politicking. That isn’t working today. Some municipalities have moved their elections back to even-numbered years to boost voter participation. More should do so.
Studies show that low voter turnout reduces the representation of people of color in city councils and mayors’ offices. But important, high profile local issues can focus attention and increase voter participation. For example, in the aftermath of the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, some 30 percent of residents voted in local elections last April — more than twice the 11.7 percent turnout rate in the previous municipal elections.
The higher turnout in Ferguson is a result of prolonged and focused scrutiny on the nearly all-white city government and police force in a majority-black city. Unfortunately, most local issues and elections don’t attract that kind of attention. A voter looking for information on local issues today can find far more news coverage on the Syrian civil war or the World Series, even in local news media.
On Oct. 16, Dave de Felice, a county supervisor in Madison, Wisconsin, launched the Golden Felice Awards, to call attention to questionable public spending and the lack of media coverage on local governments. (De Felice is rebranding the Golden Fleece Awards, which were started by late U.S. Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin to highlight wasteful government spending.)
No local media covered de Felice’s initiative or the first award. The lack of media interest proved his bigger point: the failure of the local press to cover the county board, which spends about half a billion dollars a year.
“It used to be that even our committee meetings were covered,” de Felice told The Columbia Journalism Review recently. “Well, that’s not happened in a long time. Then the gradual erosion started hitting board meetings. And so one by one, they started disappearing … There needs to be a presence there just to keep us on our best behavior, number one, and number two, to keep the public in touch with what’s going on.”
Politics and government start at the local level. Working together, people can demand better lighting on their streets, increased library hours or an end to public subsidies for stadium construction. Voters who succeed in affecting local government policy and electing their preferred candidates will feel more empowered to have a say on the direction of their state or country.
Two steps can increase voter turnout for local elections. First, move local elections to even-numbered years, when other polls take place. Second, strengthen the local media’s capacity to cover local governments. Coverage has diminished because distant corporate owners interested in profits, not local issues, increasingly control local media outlets.
Despite the challenges, increased media attention to local government and higher voter turnout for local elections are essential to building better schools, better communities and better democracy.