There was an election last Tuesday. Many of the folks reading this likely knew this, but it seems the overwhelming reaction to this news has been something like, “Oh, yeah, I should have done that.” Even I, a good ol’ nerd who’s obsessed with American civic life failed to register on time to vote in my new hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona. So, I missed a chance to weigh in on the 20 ballot propositions that were up for my vote.
Unfortunately, my story is far from unique. Many Americans theoretically grasp the importance of voting, and many will even tell you that they understand how primaries and off-cycle elections give them more say; with so few people voting compared to general main elections, each individual makes a larger percentage of the vote. But, without the hoopla and fanfare, it’s easy to miss sight of these elections until it’s too late — especially with voter registration deadlines passing before almost any news sites are covering the pending elections.
Take for instance the state of Iowa, which not only had several bond and ballot initiatives, but many important elections for local office. Throughout the state, there were city councilors, school board members, and other officials with far more say over our daily lives than the president. But, Iowa only saw 366,488 total votes in the state’s entire gamut of local elections compared to the 759,061 votes cast only for President Biden in the last presidential election.
The only way forward in a pluralistic democracy as large as ours is to allow differences in public appetite, and to in fact build around those differences. Take the current culture wars and how heated they are for everyone involved. It certainly doesn’t help that everyone uses “rights-based” language to assert universal claims of moral truth that leave no room for compromise. But it is also dramatically exacerbated by ever-more federal solution-attempting that thrusts an increasingly marginal majority’s views of morality and the good life on all 370 million people living in the United States. Local governance is the only way we can find the solutions (plural) that are needed for this society, rather than continuing to fight over an imagined perfect solution that works for everyone.
Take for instance the ongoing curriculum debates in schools, battles over book banning that would give Ray Bradbury a fever of 451 degrees, and questions over how to best increase parental control over education. These are all going to be solved by school boards and state officials, not by the federal government. And fortunately for all of us, their solutions are going to vary, and be tailored to the communities they’re in; not based on a lowest-common-denominator of federal one-size-fits-all policymaking.
…the quickest way for voters to affect housing prices is by demanding better policies at the local level.
Or, say you’re like me, and you agree that the rent is too damn high. It’s at the local level, including my new home in Flagstaff, that policies affecting rent and housing prices are made. If you haven’t before, look up a city council agenda and pay attention to how much of it is dominated by topics like “zoning” and other similar policies that directly impact home prices. While the federal government’s dramatic interference in markets and regulations around building supplies certainly impact housing, the quickest way for voters to affect housing prices is by demanding better policies at the local level.
Finally, for those of you who want a national reason to vote locally, I offer a few. First, partisans dominate redistricting, and it’s through local elections that they win the majorities needed to artificially preserve future power. So, if you’re a partisan, get voting. Secondly, local officials often constitute the bench of future national leaders. It’s when they are running locally that they most need your vote, so that’s also when you have the greatest chance to affect the makeup of future national officials. Third and finally, local officials can affect national elections. For instance, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds used the buildup and press around the elections as an opportunity to endorse Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president.
Now, I will say that these off-cycle local elections are fraught with abuse by political insiders and likely need dramatic reform at both a political and media-coverage level. The political elites know that most of us aren’t going to bother with voting in these elections, so that’s why they’re crammed with ballot initiatives, bond issuances, calls for new taxes, and other things that would typically die a quick death in a general election. But, I hear too many conservatives complain about this problem as if they don’t do it too. And for those wondering why it is so unpopular but never changes, look no further than the two major political corporations that monopolize our election industry, and the power that they are both able to solidify through off-cycle minuscule-vote-total victories…But, I digress. Off-cycle elections are here to stay, and they are probably one of the best ways for individuals to make their votes heard in the current system.
So, I’ll leave you with my admonition of guilt. My new home of Flagstaff had 20 ballot propositions up for my vote. Without running through all of these, highlights included asking voters to dramatically expand the power of my local government to issue debt to pay for things and expanding our charter to allow out-of-towners to represent us in city and county positions. As someone who believes in fiscal responsibility and as-local-as-possible-representation, I wish I could’ve voted against these propositions. But, instead, I like so many of my other fellow Americans, I am now at the whim of those who bothered to show up. In the meantime, I’ll be sure to use all my non-vote methods of affecting political change (see the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights). But, next off-cycle election, I can also promise that I won’t be saying “darn” again.
Gabriel Green is the coalition manager for the Center for Practical Federalism.