Three Reasons Why It’s Hard to Vote in Local Elections—and Why I’ll Vote Anyway

This entry was contributed by on October 19th, 2015 at 9:24 am and is filed under , .
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The other afternoon, a woman knocked at my door. Her forehead was dewy with sweat, her chest heaving a bit with the exertion of tackling the hill in front of our house. “My husband is running for county sheriff,” she gasped, “and I hope you’ll consider voting for him.” After quickly outlining the man’s fine, electable qualities, she pressed a postcard into my hands and thanked me for my time.

No, seriously. Thank you, lady. Because unless your husband turns out to be in league with the Devil, he gets my vote.

I have a simple rule about elections: If I meet you in person, or if you send a personal emissary to my door, nine times out of ten I’ll vote for you. Human contact wins me every time. Does that make me a ridiculously easy sell? Undoubtedly. But the Doorstep Test also gauges what I feel is an important quality in a candidate: desire. I want to know how badly you want to be elected. If you’re hoofing up my street at dinnertime, the answer is probably “pretty badly.”

That may be a paltry reason for casting a vote (admittedly, I do try to be an educated voter most of the time), but municipal elections are hard enough as it is. A study by the organization Fairvote found that in mayoral races from 2008 to 2011, no major city managed to drum up more than 45 percent of its voters. In a few places, like San Antonio and El Paso, turnout was in the single digits. Americans, who are lazy about voting in general, are positively indifferent to their local races. Why?

  1. We can’t find information. Analysis and punditry about national races blast in a fire hose stream we’re desperate to shut off. Information about local races comes in a trickle. In lieu of mailed sample ballots—my town has given up on them—simply finding out who’s on the ballot requires some detective work. (I Googled my way to, then Googled some more to figure out my precinct.) Small barriers to entry can make blasé voters give up.
  2. We have no idea who anyone is. In the past fourteen years I’ve lived in five different states. No matter where I land, the president of the United States is the same. Not so the county clerk. Familiarizing myself with local political players requires a complete do-over in every new town. Sometimes that seems like too much work.
  3. We’re not sure why it matters. More than those national officials we love to complain about, local leaders regularly make decisions about things that affect our daily lives. Our schools. Our roads. Our jobs. Our communities. They’re also more likely to bridge partisan divides and get the job done. (When was the last time you heard about a municipal filibuster?) Yet there’s a fundamental disconnect between how much attention we lavish on federal government compared with how roundly we ignore the workings of local government. Some have suggested scheduling local elections concurrently with national elections to increase turnout, but that doesn’t solve the problem that most citizens are ignorant about what their towns and counties do for them.

Honestly, I only started paying attention to local government recently, after writing a book about why people love their towns and discovering that part of loving your town is becoming engaged with its politics. Writing to elected officials. Popping a political sign in the yard.

And voting. There are people in our towns who care immensely about what happens. I love that, in my small town, candidates for local office (and their wives) sometimes knock at my door. They’re engaged and committed. They want to lead, badly. The least I can do is show up to vote for them.

6 Responses to “Three Reasons Why It’s Hard to Vote in Local Elections—and Why I’ll Vote Anyway”

  1. Emily Edmonds

    I loved this article – partly because I’m the wife of a town board candidate in a small mountain town of about 2,000 people in the NC mountains! We’ve done a lot of sign-popping and huffing and puffing to doorsteps lately. 🙂
    I agree with so many of the points you make. Scheduling concurrently with national elections is a great step forward, but as you note, other barriers are significant. In our town, less than 10% vote for municipal elections each year – roughly 200 people. We are locals, and still have trouble meeting everyone, especially those who aren’t local and have recently moved here. And, there’s a tendency at the local level for so few people to run that we end up with the same board members for 30 years at a time! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we certainly need fresh new ideas, especially as times change and challenges increase on local governments.
    The question we most often are asked at people’s doorsteps is “so what does the town board do?” 🙂 It makes me laugh to see that the candidates themselves are the primary educational tool for citizens about what local government does! Maybe that is one solution – better knowledge for citizens about the actual role of local governments and their impacts on our daily lives.
    Great article, and thanks for a nice acknowledgment of the difficulties in running for local office and working to make change at the micro-level!

    • Emily, I would DEFINITELY vote for your husband. I love that you guys are out there meeting people face to face! I wish there was a blanket, once-and-for-all way to educate people on the role of their local government leaders, but I think the way you’re doing it might be the key. You simply have to talk to one person at a time.

      Good luck on the election! Hope he wins!

      • Emily Edmonds

        Thanks, Melody! It was actually the closest election in over 20 years, and 4 of the 5 candidates were under 45 – which has never happened before. They decided the whole thing on a coin toss! Another little bit of knowledge to share with people when they ask what local governments do – apparently, in NC, it’s permissible to do a “best out of three” coin toss as a tiebreaker rather than to re-run the election. 🙂
        He didn’t win, but that’s okay; we had a great time and made a lot of new friends 🙂

        • Emily – thanks for the update on your very personal connection to local elections! Glad it was a good experience.

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