By Bernard Freeman
Voting Empowers the Powerless
The average politician uses two main inputs when deciding how to vote — voters and donors.
It’s safe to say that most of us don’t have the cash to compete against huge corporations or lobbying groups when it comes to donations. Voting levels the playing field by increasing the number of voices they hear. That leads to better, more responsive representation at every level of government. It may also more precisely direct funding initiatives and laws that impact every facet of our lives.
Your vote does more than ensure that a certain candidate takes office. These elected officials then play a critical role in deciding on issues ranging from infrastructure to jobs, from taxes to community safety and more. If you don’t vote, your precinct, town, county or state may not receive the critical funding and attention they deserve to bolster education, health care, youth programs, employment, veteran programs and the environment.
By not voting, you are effectively allowing someone else to decide how all of these critical community decisions will be managed, sometimes for many years. Elected officials are regularly involved in presenting tax initiatives, tax collecting and funding allocations. If a candidate takes over who doesn’t share your views on how that money is spent, you can’t complain if you sat at home on election day.
Local and state members of the school board will decide everything from curriculum and uniforms to pre-K and lunch and after-school programs, from teacher salaries to infrastructure improvement. At the state and national level, elected officials have a direct say on fairness in hiring practices, the minimum wage, pay equity and workplace safety. Access to certain forms of health care can be con-trolled by those we elect, as well. Social Security and Medicare are government-run programs that impact millions of seniors lives every day.
Funding to hire law enforcement and first responders flows from city, county and state coffers. Your elected representatives also have a direct say in crime prevention programs, parks and recreation initiatives, and critical infrastructure programs that impact safety, access and traffic control. Roads and bridges don’t get fixed without a sign off from a government official. Make sure they’re making decisions based on what your community actually wants — by voting.
Local Elections Matter
National issues are only occasionally decided by a handful of people. It happens all the time locally.
Texas became a part of the Union with a one-vote margin. John F. Kennedy became president with a margin of victory so razor thin that he would have lost in 11 states if less than 1% of voters changed their minds. Impeached President Andrew Johnson avoided a Senate conviction by one vote.
But these narrow outcomes are even more common on the local level, primarily because participation is so incredibly low. Oddly, local elections are nevertheless deeply important. They fund and administer schools, parks, public safety, transportation, libraries and housing — all institutions that everyday Americans hold dear.
And yet fewer than 15% of eligible voters take part in electing community leaders like a mayor, school board member or city counselor.
In fact, turnout for recent local elections in the country’s 30 largest municipalities was just 15%, according to researchers at Portland State University. They analyzed some 23 million voting records to determine local patterns in 50 major U.S. cities. In Dallas, Fort Worth and Las Vegas, turn-out in some cases actually fell into single digits.
Older voters continue to exercise their right to vote far more consistently than younger generations, and the Portland State researchers found that has changed the average local election voter profile in America: Their median age is now 57, nearly a generation older than the actual age for those who are eligible to vote. Local residents who are retirement age or older were some 15 times more likely to vote than eligible voters in the 18-34 age bracket.
Ironically, votes count much more when it comes to city- and county-level decision making. That’s because presidential elections garner hundreds of millions of votes while local elections are decided in an environment where only thousands of voices are being heard. In smaller communities, votes only number in the hundreds.
These local elections may also determine important issues like taxation, zoning and various ordinances. Concerned about educating children? Criminal justice reform? Unsafe intersections, over-development or potholes? Solutions to these top-of-mind issues — and many, many others — happen at the local level. In the end, they also have far more direct impact on daily lives than anything that happens at the federal level.
Not Voting Could Cost You
America’s election system isn’t particularly easy to navigate, but there are financial implications if you don’t. Skipping elections means having no say in local taxation and spending.
It’s difficult for some people to grasp how to register to vote, and still more difficult to carve out the time to cast a ballot. Elections also require that voters make informed choices about candidates and their platforms, and sometimes to study jargon-filled language to judge an amendment or bond’s worth.
Then, after all of that, you have to believe that your vote will make a difference — no easy task. One Ipsos poll found that 80% of occasional voters and 68% of nonvoters were less likely to believe government directly impacts their lives than did people who voted consistently (84%). A National Public Radio survey found that two-thirds of nonvoters agreed with the idea that voting has little to do with how the country actually runs.
How do we break the logjam? The Ipsos poll found that inconsistent voters would only find their way to the polls when they felt like their vote really mattered — or when the stakes were unusually high. Often, little-noticed local elections meet both standards.
Ipsos’ non-voting respondents were typically younger, had lower levels of education, were not affiliated with either party, and — crucially — were more likely to be lower-income workers. Yet local elections regularly deal with issues which directly impact the bottom line. Not voting could literally be taking money out of your own pocket.
Much of direct taxation, and the spending that’s most noticeable in our lives, is controlled at the city, county and state levels. But embarrassingly low local participation leaves those decisions to a previous few.
Studies on turnout in these elections show that homeowners, the wealthy and the elderly dominate the vote. By not participating, others ensure that their opinions and needs aren’t addressed, while also skewing local policies in a way that may not be representative of the actual populace.
Ironically, 74% of those who responded to a survey by the Pew Research Center felt that voting was a more important element of good citizenship than paying taxes. In fact, the two are interrelated — so staying home could really cost you.