Local and municipal elections, such as those which are occurring this November in an off-year, are essential. They propel politicians into power which have the greatest impact on normal people like you. They account for by far the least money spent in all elections. And most shockingly, the least amount of people participate in them. Why is this? It is because, in off-election years, many citizens feel that local politicians running do not affect change the way state or nationally elected officials do.
Therefore, many people choose to ignore local races and go on with their lives. But these municipal elections are not only important, they are the most important. The changes that local government can enact far outweigh any changes state or elected government can make. Furthermore, these changes tend to impact residents far more than any changes made in higher levels of elected office. So let’s dive into why local elections are so paramount to the citizens of the United States.
The Capabilities of Local Politicians
The most obvious reason local elections are so important to citizens all around this country is simply the power individuals have in these offices. Municipal officials, such as those elected in townships (supervisors, auditors, tax collectors) and school boards (directors, advisors) can affect change so much more than people think. For townships, local government officials have the power to accept or deny funds in excess of millions of dollars, they have the ability to make decisions on land developments, and most importantly, they have the authority to govern local municipalities however they see fit.
The United States government is set up in a way that allows local officials to have a lot of discretion. One example is Northampton Township in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Here, township supervisors voted to buy a country club. Most people would believe local government is generally not in the business of owning resort-type businesses, but in this township, this is an acceptable practice.
In school board positions, officials have the discretion to appropriate and reappropriate funds to their school district at will. They also have the ability to control how tax revenue the school district receives is spent on their schools. Finally, school board directors have the power to decide how to form curriculum, and how to enforce local rules. An example of this is Council Rock Schoool District (also in Bucks County, Pennsylvania). In August of 2021, CRSD School Board Directors voted to make mask-wearing optional in the district.
Since that time, the state of Pennsylvania has mandated mask-wearing in schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and thus the district has updated its guidance to reflect that change will still allowing mask exemptions. This is just one example of the power school boards have to enact change. This initial guidance from the school district was not a result of the President, Senate, or the Governor of Pennsylvania. It was the result of a local school board making a decision for their community. This is the kind of authority municipal and school board offices can afford to locally elected politicians.
Municipal elections would also encompass town, city, and county elected officials who also have substantial power. In towns and cities, people elect mayors and city councilors (among other positions) to serve their local communities. These officials have powers including tax revenue appropriation, enforcement of certain laws and regulations, and land development authority. Politicians elected at the city level often have the ability to cast a wide net over their jurisdictions. For counties, a similar set of circumstances is true.
County elected officials include the district attorney, the recorder of deeds, and the sheriff among other offices. These individuals have many responsibilities including local law enforcement. This is especially important considering the increasing divide the two major political parties see in community policing. A Democrat elected district attorney may interpret the law much differently from a Republican elected district attorney. An example of this is Progressive Attorney Generals in cities like Philadelphia that are trying a different approach to combat crime than their counterparts in surrounding areas.
The Reasoning Behind a Lack of Interest
Many citizens of this country vote in state and national elections. This includes those for President, Senate, House of Representatives, and others. But many of these same individuals choose to skip municipal elections year after year. Why is this, and more importantly, why do these same people not see the inherent importance of local elections? The reasoning is pretty simple. Most residents of the United States buy into the media narrative that state and national elections are important (rightly so). What media often do not cover is the importance of local races.
For example, how many times have you turned on the TV and a news personality was speaking about how essential it was to vote for supervisor candidates in your township? The answer is likely never. Media outlets seem to ignore the importance of local elections, and so the majority of voters simply do not participate. When the news starts covering local races with the same level of importance that they cover higher-level elections, more people will naturally vote. But until then, it seems only a small fraction of the electorate will continue to decide municipal races.
Another factor in the municipal election turnout calculus is the age divide. For starters, young people always drive turnout in national elections as we saw with record turnout in 2020. In off-year elections, young people often do not see the importance of voting in municipalities and choose to skip them. This again has to do with media coverage as well as social media coverage. It is safe to say that the social media young people consume so much of is not highlighting local elections. This comes from experience as a young person who uses social media. When the 2020 Election was in full swing, most if not all social media outlets were covering it with nonstop commentary. That is to say, the people on these media outlets were talking about it with great interest and enthusiasm. This interest and enthusiasm, just as with every other year, has now unfortunately dissipated.
What is left is a tiny fraction of young people planning to contribute to their locality by way of voting. This reality means that older generations of Americans often decide local races. Coming from somebody who worked in an off-year election, the percent of the electorate voting was probably 75-85% senior citizens. I could count the number of young people that showed up at my local precinct on one hand. This is why Republican candidates often do better in off-year elections. Young mostly left-leaning Americans avoid these elections and allow their older, more conservative counterparts to decide who runs their local governments. This is not to say this shouldn’t be the case, considering young people willingly choose not to vote. But it is important in the context of who actually decides municipal elections.
The Author’s Personal Connection
Local government in particular has had a sizable impact on my life as someone who naturally has an interest in politics. Its effect can be seen in a number of ways, most notably with a recently approved project to construct a large convenience store and gas station in close proximity to my residence. The store is known as Wawa, and its developer Provco is angling to construct its business on a plot of land that is zoned for light commercial use. This means businesses in the realm of a doctor’s office or perhaps a small shopping center. Where local government comes in is with zoning.
As mentioned, municipalities have broad discretion when it comes to land developments and zoning. In this location, my local government failed to rezone land that had no business being commercial. Homes surround the plot of land on two out of three sides of its triangular shape. Local government failed me by participating in a compound failure with regards to this project. First, they failed to rezone the land, but then they sat back and allowed the developer to call all the shots and refused to take the side of their residents, many of whom (me included) are strongly fighting it.
The project has showed me just how important it is to have a stake in local government. Before this ordeal began, I never really had a strong interest in local government or local issues. It was always, who will be the next President, or will my Senator win reelection? I never thought that my municipality could effect change so much, but the truth of the matter is it has. Since my family and I began fighting this project (along with dozens of members of our community), I have been introduced to so many local issues I was previously not privy to.
I found out how much money my locality has at its disposal and why it was not being better used. I also questioned the motives of elected officials in my municipality who seemingly stand to benefit from decisions they made. Finally, I have seen the importance of community outreach and its long-reaching arm when it comes to opposing projects such as the Wawa development in my community.
Local Government Roundup
Clearly, local government and municipal elections are not only important, they are paramount when it comes to politics. What elected officials can affect you the most, local ones. What politicians are least likely to be held accountable when they make a mistake, local ones. And which elected officials have the most obligation to serve their communities, again its local ones. So for the people that do not currently plan to vote this November, I encourage you to change your tune.
Think about township, school board, and county offices that can and will enact change that affects you the most. Consider doing research on your own local elected officials and those running this November. Then consider voting based on educated research into these officials. It can be said that you have no right to voice an opinion on politics if you knowingly and willingly choose not to vote. The same goes for local elections, vote this year and every year because change does not stop when you stop voting.
Spoken from a person with a NIMBY objective !