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Do Local Elections Matter?

The simple answer is yes because all levels of civic engagement influence the bigger picture. The education and housing within a district is under the jurisdiction of your local government; in addition, they may allocate funds to truly influence the landscape of where your living. However, national concerns and overarching economic policies are not decided on the local level, they're responsibility lies in implementation. Learn more about how your local government fits into the bigger picture here!

Illustrated by Ku Li

By Emma Lin, Kelly Liu, and Ananya Biswas


The structure of the US government means that a lot of power falls into the hands of the state systems. Within the United States, states and the federal government have both exclusive (meaning only one of the governments has the jurisdiction over that particular power) and concurrent (meaning both governments share jurisdiction over that particular power) powers. Within the national government, exclusive federal powers include coining money, regulating interstate and foreign commerce, declaring war, raising armies, and conducting foreign affairs. Concurrent powers include taxation, lawmaking (and enforcement), taking land for public use, establishing courts, and borrowing money. These powers generally help the nation act as a collective whole.

On the other hand, exclusive state powers include conducting elections, establishing local governments, providing for public safety, health, and welfare, maintaining militia, and ratifying constitutional amendments, liberties that they are free to have themselves. However, it is important to note that the federal government can still influence state governments through the distribution of grants, incentives, or aid by tying funding to specific actions. For example, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 stipulated states must have a minimum drinking age of 21 to receive full federal highway funding. But at the end of the day, these powers are largely relegated to those of the state. In conclusion, we care about federal elections because they decide what happens to us on a national level.

The city governments are responsible for issues specific to their own area. Within each state government lies powerful executive roles like a Mayor or a City Manager, who not only have responsibilities to appoint or dismiss key department heads(like the chief of police), but also major tasks like creating the yearly budget to present to the City Council for amendment and approval, and introducing new laws, depending on the cities charter that address issues like land use/development, housing, job programs or incentives, transportation policies, investment in parks or libraries and finally how much to cooperate with the federal government on more national issues like immigration or drug policies.

Besides executive roles, there are also legislative responsibilities, for city councils or commissioners. They give the final vote in creating laws & approving a city budget, get their own revenue sources, and set rules for broad, country-wide programs(like transportation initiatives that connect multiple cities). Finally, there are also legal responsibilities, which are relegated to roles for District Attorneys or the City Attorney. These roles include the responsibility to be the chief law enforcer for the community, and to have authority to investigate and bring issues to trial, prosecute criminal offenses, and make sentencing recommendations. Attorneys may work to reform the criminal justice system and address inequities in sentencing, and advocate for changes to cash bail standards. These complicated roles demonstrate the idea that the people taking the roles for each state have a big impact on the lives of those residing in a state.

Finally, local governments are responsible for issues “close” to people. Elected school district governing boards are responsible for creating policies, setting school district budgets, and setting teacher pay. They determine the quantity of new housing created, and ensure trash is picked up and snow is plowed in areas with that type of weather. Finally, they also can decide whether to invest in sidewalk construction and maintenance, traffic signal placement, and speed limit enforcement. These examples enforce the idea that the people who you elect in your state office can really change the way life works around your local community.

What are the reasons why people participate in elections in the first place? People often participate in politics when the results directly affect them. Elections with candidates who have direct (rather than indirect) control over city services, where voters can use direct democracy to decide issues themselves, and elections in which the position of mayor has some measure of control over the daily operations of the city are all cases where turnout rose measurably. A study from the Municipal Institution showed that cities that provided more services with their own staff, as opposed to contracting out firms or making arrangements with other local governments tended to draw a larger share of voters to polls. With provided services, people felt more heard, as if their government actually sees them, and thus end up trusting those governments more. Additional services provided by city staff (of the five asked about in the survey: fire, police, library, sewerage, and garbage), were associated with approximately 1% higher voter turnout.

The question then leads us to ask, what percent of able voters participate in local elections?

In terms of the city level, in the 2003 election, there was a 45.1%, meaning less than half of the population had not participated in the voting process. Even then, rates at San Ramon are ‘usually high’. Contra Costa county voters register and vote a lot for the 2020 election, with a turnout 50%, from mostly mail based voting with only about 6% in person. At the state level, there was a primary turnout of about 25% in June and a general turnout of 42% in November. This is lower than usual —— since the 2008 presidential election was the last time with high voter turnout, in recent times there has been a 33% decline in primary turnout and 37% decline in general election turnout. Not everyone registers for elections either, with only about 73% of eligible adults registered.

So why don’t people participate in city level elections? Seventeen percent of the eligible, non registered voters cite time or schedule constraints as a reason for not registering, while 32% cite other reasons. The real reason may lie with the idea that many don’t think they are all that important, ranging from reasons of government distrust, a belief that their elected officials won’t listen to them, and finding other ways to affect public policy(like the initiative process). 24% of voters lack interest, while the other 36% say that they aren’t interested in politics or the elections.

Voter turnout in local California elections are decreasing, and convenience seems to be the culprit. Possible solutions may be decreased line lengths or more polling booths. It’s also important to increase confidence in the government, as 30% of Californians not registered to vote mention low trust in government as the reason why.

Participating in politics is the foundation of a healthy democracy, only those who know enough to care and do something have a voice. Think of politics like the butterfly effect where one small difference can ripple and effect the course of existence, with politicians like Pete Buttigieg's only experience in politics prior to his presidential bid as a mayor of a small town. He was able to use this platform to launch a much greater one. The people we elect to be our representatives are people to whom we give our power, they can use it to whatever means suit their ends. Therefore, we should care enough to get in a car and go to the poles that one time in a year it is available to all of us. Participation in elections may not seem important due to the sheer number of people whose votes will go in, however, though that may be true for federal elections, a single vote can matter much more in local elections. In the end, there are few ways that truly are more effective than to vote for your local leaders, and make a difference in your community.

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