A Useful Spot to Place Our Attention in 2024

Marquee reading LOCAL
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 / Unsplash

This is part of a short series on how to navigate 2024. There are plenty of ideas to share, you'll know which lands for you.

There was no wait to vote at the American Legion. Pretty quiet all morning, the woman at the folding card table told me as she handed me my ballot. It was an off-year, not-in-November and not-a-primary election.

There were a handful of other folks at the Legion with me, which was consistent with turnout in towns and cities across our fair land. Only about 15% of voters show up for municipal elections, 5-10% for school board elections.

And that handful of folks at the Legion was white and north of 60. In fact, the profile of a typical local election voter is white, decently well-off, and eligible for AARP benefits. So a non-representative percentage of the population has outsized impact on what our cities, towns, and counties do with everybody's taxpayer dollars.

There are some Doubting Dennis's out there who think that all towns do is picayune stuff like trash pickup (trash not being picked up becomes a pretty big deal, pretty fast) and the Big Kid Policy happens over in D.C. Here's what we can tell those naysayers.

Turn on the tap and that water flows because of the town's water district. While drinking your coffee made with that water, you read that the 15-year-old found with fentanyl in town was charged as an adult and given 20 years, courtesy of the District Attorney's office. (More about local elections and criminal justice reform here.) Done with coffee, you dart across the street to the park with your dog. There's no crosswalk, and that's on the town's Public Works. But the off-leash hours in the park (maintained by the town) improved, thanks to the City Council. Back home, you hop on your bike to get your kiddo to daycare and you've got a bike lane, which the town created. It'd be nice to take public transit, but the town hasn't put in a stop nearby. Oh! And you've got to register that kiddo for camp, which is run by the town's Parks and Rec. Bummer they built over the wetland the camp used to visit, but the town's Planning Board blessed the new development.

Which department oversees what in local government will vary from town to town. But the bottom line is town/city and county government are big players in the quality of our lives.

Here's another dimension of municipal elections. Local electeds are to higher office what the Big 10 is to the NFL: major feeder. Oodles of governors - including mine - and state legislators cut their teeth in local government. And to take it up one more notch: over 40% of the 117th Congress (2021-2022) is made up of former state legislators. Today, one hundred percent of Senate and House leadership came from local or state elected office.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jefferies were both New York Assembly Members. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was Judge/Executive of Jefferson County and House Speaker Mike Johnson was a Louisiana House Rep.

Give it a few years and your school board member, District Attorney, city councilor could be your state Senator, U.S. House Rep, governor.

So a great and worthy focus of our attention this bonkers year is local elections. The Presidential will get our eyeballs without us lifting a finger: headlines, banner ads, fundraising texts. Ayyyyyye, all the texts. But local elections will require just a bit of dedicated effort on our part. Here are four pieces of low-hanging fruit we could pick.

First, let's get the scoop on when local elections are happening in our town.

Lack of awareness and publicity is one dampening factor on local election turnout. But let's be clear-eyed: it's only one factor. Unless you live under 15 gigantic rocks, it's hard not to know about Presidential elections and still only 62.8% of voters vote. Voter suppression is real, but it alone doesn't account for America ranking 31 out of 35 developed countries for voter turnout.

If the details aren't on the town website, give the Town/City Clerk a buzz - they administer elections - to ask four things:

  • What're the questions on the ballot
  • Election dates
  • Dates/hours for early and absentee voting (if those are options)
  • And would they kindly put all the above info on the town website?

Second, before early voting starts, make a good strong cup of coffee or tea and take a few minutes to dig into what's on the ballot.

Third, and here's where the rubber hits the road, tell folks about what you've learned. Most people don't pay terribly much attention to local elections and, if they vote at all, may feel like they're voting blind. A friendly guide like you can be quite helpful.

I put together an email for everyone I know in the area with my voting recs and one line about why I'm voting that way. Even if we only know a handful of folks, some of these municipal elections are swayed by a smattering of votes. In March 2019, Concord, NH had a special municipal election where a city council race was decided by 102 votes. Over in Duxbury, Mass last March, 48 voters decided the fate of a seawall repair project.

Fourth, and this is an ever-so-slightly heavier lift, so do it with your knees not your back: drop a note to the City Clerk with some suggestions about how they could publicize the election. Maybe there's an electric signboard they can put in a high traffic area during election week. Put signage at the public library, community centers, public housing, ask town councilors to mention it in their social media, if they have it.

I reached out to my City Clerk with these suggestions for the June 2023 school budget election. She was game, implemented the ideas, added in some of her own, and turnout increased nearly 50%. (Though with elections, there are so many factors at play, including weather.) Now, alas turnout went from just 2.1% of the voting population in 2021 to 3.88% in 2023, so lots of room for improvement. But when the numbers are rock bottom, any effort could help move the needle. I absolutely sent a congrats and thank you to our hardworking City Clerk after the election.

I don't love to wait. But I'd love nothing more than to stand in a long, diverse line snaking out of the American Legion for every single election. Just a terrific expression of democracy.

And one last thing: The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue got his start as a New Castle County Councilor.

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