If you read the major headlines at a newsstand tomorrow morning, you’d most likely assume that the political powers in Washington, DC, have the only political impact on Americans. The goings on at the White House, and the wheelings and dealings of the US Senate and House of Representatives, take center stage each day for most of our major news outlets. Because off this, they assume an extremely high level of importance in our minds compared to the state, county, and city governments that operate all around us.
A recent Portland State University study showed that in ten of America’s 30 largest cities, average voter turnout in local elections rests at less than 15% of eligible voters. And this already worrisome number is staggeringly worse in cities like Dallas (6%), Las Vegas (9%), Miami (12%), and New York City (14%).
In a very real way, Americans do rely on the prevalence of media coverage to telegraph the importance of political issues. This impacts how often we vote and engage with local political issues. However, national news outlets are businesses and are focused on creating content that is relevant to the maximum number of people. Which means a piece covering a US Senate decision is going to appeal to more people than a debate among County Supervisors. National news will always win out for outlets like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
The federal government is no doubt important, but it really shouldn’t eclipse local government to this extent. In fact, if most Americans flipped the mental hierarchy for our attention, putting the most local at the top of their list, this country and each American would most likely be better off. Here are five reasons why:
- Most of the laws that impact your daily life are made at the local level.Our city and county governments overwhelmingly focus on laws that touch our lives every day. How clean is the water that comes out of your tap; how safe are your roads; which company provides cable service; how much sales tax you pay; and the height, density, and uses of the buildings in your neighborhood are all local issues that have a significant impact on our day-to-day, hour-to-hour lives. Yet these issues rarely make the headlines on CNN, and when they do it’s generally only when it’s too late for our attention to avert a crisis. If we look at the city decisions that lead to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, it’s clear that city officials began investigating and discussing risky ways to cut water costs in June of 2012, nearly two years before the first health complaints made their way into the news.
- Local government is more responsive than the federal government.Local elected officials by and large represent fewer constituents than federal elected officials. They also tend to have fewer lobbyists and interest groups vying for their attention. All of this translates to local elected officials that are more responsive to their constituents than their federal counterparts. To make a political impact at your City Hall, you need far fewer allies than you would if you wanted to make ripples in DC. So not only are local political issues more relevant to your daily life, but you also have the greatest ability to impact these policies!
- Your vote means more in local elections.Local elections get far fewer voters than federal elections, which means your vote for City Council, Mayor, or state legislature makes up a much higher percentage of the final vote count than it does for federal seats. If only 6% of the registered voters in your town are voting, your ballot, and those of a handful of friends can be the deciding factor on who wins and loses. In 2017, a race for the seat in the Virginia House of Delegates came down to a tie. A single vote could have made the difference, and in doing so flipped the control of the state legislature from one party to another. Instead, a coin-flip decided the state’s fate.
- Local politics are less about parties and more about the platform.According to the National League of Cities, three out of four American cities run non-partisan elections in which candidates don’t run under party labels. When we don’t have these easy and misleading monikers to rely upon, elected officials have to campaign on ideas and actions instead of resting on party loyalty to secure their votes. This generally means elected officials are looking to act on the input of their constituents to build their reputation and earn support.
- Local governments are incubators for laws that get enacted at the state and federal level.Sure, following national political issues makes us feel like we’re keeping an eye on something big and important. But cities and counties are often the first to try new laws and policies that are later used to craft policy at the national level. Policies on charter schools, environmental regulations, non-discrimination ordinances, and commercial safety regulations overwhelmingly started at the city, county, and state levels, and proved their local efficacy before being adopted by a majority of states or the federal government itself. In 2016, the City of San Francisco proposed a law requiring businesses to pay for employees’ parental leaves as a way to highlight the issue for nationwide discussion. California State Senator Scott Weiner captures the role of local politics perfectly when he said, “the more local jurisdictions that tackle these issues, the more momentum there is for statewide and eventually national action.”
If local politics is so important, why do so few of us participate? The sad answer is, because it’s not easy. Most Americans feel they get a good sense of national news by merely scanning the headlines and social media, but even that gives a shockingly superficial and often untrue understanding of the national landscape. Meanwhile, local politics is often left out completely. But we can each take three important steps to say informed on issues that are sure to impact us. First, find your local newspaper, and give it your readership and support. Paying for a subscription ensures that local news outlets, which are struggling to survive, can help you keep an eye on your local politicians.
Once you’ve armed yourself with information, start subscribing to your local governments’ mailing lists and attending city and county hearings. Your voice can have a huge impact on new policies and issues, and quite literally change the course of a life or death situation.
And finally, we all have to start voting in our local elections. Voting isn’t the only important civic action we should be taking (see everything above), but at the local level it definitely makes the most difference. Isn’t it time 15% of our neighbors stopped deciding the fate of 100% of us?