If you are tired of listening to political posturing of officials and candidates, petty infighting, and selfserving politicians and interests groups, you are in the great majority of Americans. But don’t let this turn you off from politics entirely, because there is still a way to affect positive political change without waiting for Washington to reform.
Every year, states, counties, and cities hold innumerable elections that go largely ignored by volunteers, fundraisers, and voters. Yet what is striking is that the more local the election, the more of an impact the single voter, or the single volunteer, or the single dollar has.
Average voter turnout is below 40 percent for state elections in nonpresidential election years. Even in the fourth most populous state, Florida, that amounts to only about 5 million people. For local elections, the turnout is even lower, and the total number of voters fewer. Compared to the 132 million people (roughly 62 percent) who voted for president in 2008, a citizen’s vote counts much more at the local and regional level.
Now think of money. Even in presidential election years, the average amount raised by a candidate running for a seat in a state legislature in 2008 was $86,000. Compare this to the average successful candidate for the House of Representatives who had to raise over $1.5 million, or the average successful candidate for the Senate who had to raise over $7 million. Again, local clout trumps national, as donations matter more.
The evidence suggests that time, money, and energy are better spent on elections and issues that are geographically closest to voters.
So why does national politics get most of our attention and energy?
First, that’s what the media zero in on. With most people getting their news from national sources, they may tend to think that overarching issues are the most important ones. Because many local papers are dying and local newscasts are often drowned out by the national outlets (or local crime reports), it’s more difficult to find out what is going on in your own area.
Second, political party chapters that once concentrated on backyard efforts have now become nationally focused. The old adage “all politics is local” just isn’t true any longer. Running on a political party’s national platform generally used to be reserved for candidates for national office. Not any more. If a local politician must rely on the party apparatus to win a general election, she or he must talk about what the national party organization wants.
Because of the nationalization of the news and the party structure, many people conclude that what happens at the national level is far more important than what happens closer to home. In national opinion polls, the deficit and America’s ongoing wars rank near the top of people’s concerns (behind the economy, of course). The option of “other,” where local issues would come into play, barely registers.
And while wars and the deficit are important, many of the policies that affect individuals most on a daily basis are made and administered by local officials. Think of roads, schools, water, and police protection, for example. They go largely unnoticed at election time, yet they are the issues over which voters have the most control.
Americans can win an additional benefit from participating more heavily in regional and local elections and issues. Such a shift will give each of us a greater sense of efficacy and connectedness to our community and the people in it. This will reinvigorate diminished civil society, enriching democratic principles as well as our own lives.
Kyle Scott teaches political science at Duke University. His third book, “Federalism: Theory and Practice,” has just been released.