In 2020, voters headed to the polls in record numbers, with a turnout of more than 66%. Gen Z played a significant part in determining the outcome of the presidential race, with 65% of 18-24 years old voting for Joe Biden.
Regardless of who you voted for, these statistics show that voter participation, especially amongst young people, is crucial to a fully actualized democracy. This year, voters across the country will elect new governors, state senators, mayors, and other locally-elected officials. These elections receive less press coverage, but they matter just as much. And how you vote and get involved in your local elections can make a big difference in your community and spark change on issues that you really care about!
Can local politics make a difference?
Elections happen every year, not just every four. However, on average, only 27% of voters participate in local elections. This percentage can vary depending on whether the local elections coincide with a major election cycle, but the group that votes isn’t always representative of the community since it’s such a small sample.
There is a misconception that local elections aren’t as important as presidential elections. While it’s true that local races get little media coverage, the fact is they can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life, your finances, and the future of your community.
One of the fundamental values of democracy is the right to elect representatives. Local representatives matter just as much as elected officials who hold positions at a state or federal level. These people can have an impact on where funding from local taxes goes, what kind of job or housing program your local government offers, or whether it invests in green initiatives.
Which important issues can be addressed in local elections?
The outcome of a local election can affect matters like taxes, budgeting, your local infrastructure, housing, and more. Here is how the different representatives you vote for can make a difference:
- A mayor or city manager has the power to appoint key officials. Their office drafts a yearly budget for the city and can introduce new laws. They can address issues linked to development, housing and public transit.
- City council members play an important role since they can approve or reject budgeting and legal proposals from the mayor’s office. In some states, these officials can introduce new laws. These representatives vote on a wide range of issues, from funding for local schools to trash and recycling programs.
- District or city attorneys can be elected or appointed. These officials recommend sentences for legal cases that involve felonies. Their decisions can steer a legal system’s stance on drug-related cases or police misconduct.
- A county commissioner is responsible for establishing a budget for the county. In some areas, they also oversee the police and fire departments. They may address issues linked to zoning, social services, maintaining highways and managing waste as well.
- Township officials have a similar role in states that use this structure.
- You can sometimes vote for school board officials in local elections. These representatives make important decisions regarding what local schools spend money on or the curriculum that is taught.
Local elections aren’t just about choosing representatives, though. The ballots often include yes or no questions, known as ballot measures or city questions.
The purpose of these questions is to poll citizens and find out if they approve of a specific project. For instance, on November 2, voters in Minneapolis will decide whether they support the removal of the city’s police department to create a Department of Public Safety instead.
Not all ballot measures are crucial, but they can impact your day-to-day life and economic opportunities. For instance, Richmond voters will indicate whether they support the construction of a new casino in the upcoming election.
How to get involved and encourage your peers to vote
Voting in local elections is the best way to make sure your voice gets heard. So, now is a good time to check if you’re registered to vote or register if it’s the first time you’re voting.
You can use the Up to Us Local Elections Get Heard Guide to find out about upcoming elections in your area. If you’re unable to vote on election day, look into early voting in your state or request an absentee ballot, so you can vote by mail.
You can make a difference by talking about the elections. Because local elections receive little media coverage, people might not be aware that they’ll get a chance to vote or might not know much about the issues they’ll be polled on.
Share practical information about where and when to vote, both in person and on social media. Research candidates and issues, so you can discuss why the elections are important for your community.
Concretely, you can make a difference by helping people check their registration status or request an absentee ballot, or even by carpooling together to your local polling station.
Doing more than voting
You can do more to get involved. Local politics are a great way to learn more about how a government makes decisions, and it could be the start of a career in politics. Plus, you’ll get to make a difference for issues that affect your loved ones. Here are a few ideas:
- You can contact your elected officials to draw attention to issues you care about.
- Volunteering to help people register or volunteering with a campaign can contribute to a higher turnout.
- If there are mayoral debates in your city, attend them and ask questions.
- Running for office is an option to explore. Some positions at the township or county level only require you to be 18.