From an extraordinarily controversial president and administration to a politicized pandemic and the eruption of protests over racial justice this summer, voters in the 2020 election are motivated by a confluence of tensions that have been building over the past four years, or even longer. As a result, historically low youth voter rates have incrementally increased since 2016 and are expected to jump in 2020.
But these political tensions didn’t originate in 2016 and won’t disappear on Nov. 4, 2020, regardless of who wins the election. Our national discourse begins between neighbors, in town halls and on the floors of state houses. At the highest levels, the president is up for reelection this year, but only one-third of senators are, and fewer than a quarter of governors are. Local and off-year elections matter just as much if not more than the presidential ones, but turnout rates from youth voters are often in the single digits. It’s time we mobilize for non-presidential elections as well — here’s why, and how.
While the 2020 election has been called the most important in our lifetime, it would be less consequential if people had paid attention to and voted to support policies at the state and local level over the past decade. National politicians often get their start in statehouses and city halls, forming their platforms based on their constituencies there. But in these local elections, voters aged 65 and older turn out at a rate 7 times more than voters aged 18 to 34. When young people let their grandparents decide their local and state politicians, that influences the direction of our nation’s politics down the line.
Not to mention, the considerable gridlock in Washington often leaves local officials better able to respond to constituents’ pressing needs. With little fuss, an elected district attorney can decline to prosecute drug crimes and a city council can change its zoning requirements to create more affordable housing. Police reforms in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and measures to fight the pandemic have been almost exclusively implemented by state and local elected officials.
Even prior to this year, issues such as racial justice and police brutality have largely been addressed at the state and local level. For example, the FBI had no national database documenting the use of force by police until 2019, and still has no legal authority to mandate reporting by law enforcement agencies. It will take thousands of unglamorous, little-covered local elections for systemic change to be visible nationwide. In 2019, a non-midterm and non-presidential election year when turnout rates were dismal as usual, there were 500 races for local sheriffs and prosecutors across the country.
Also that year, the restoration of voting rights for hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians with criminal records was tied to the state’s gubernatorial election, and New York and Pennsylvania’s district attorney races influenced how local law enforcement is dealing with the nation’s opioid crisis. Now, in Minneapolis, where protests over George Floyd’s murder sparked this summer’s wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, the city council’s plan to dismantle its police department won’t be put before voters until 2021, another off-year election.
If you lack an interest in politics because you aren’t concerned about issues debated on the national stage, you should be even more invested in local and state elections because they have the most direct impact on your daily life. Local elections can affect school funding and curriculum, law enforcement, local businesses, waste collection, sports arenas, marijuana laws and many more aspects of our daily lives — including public health laws, as we’ve seen during this pandemic. Moreover, while every vote always counts in every election, a single vote will have a bigger impact in a smaller election — local races are often determined by just a handful of votes.
Not all elections happen in November, and some are coming up soon. In exactly four weeks, on Dec. 1, 2020, Georgia’s 5th Congressional District will hold a special runoff election to determine which candidate will take the place of the late John Lewis to serve for the remainder of his term. Georgia voters will also likely have to head to the polls in early January to vote in a runoff election between finalists for one or even two U.S. Senate seats that may determine the majority party in the chamber. If Joe Biden wins the presidency, it’s likely he will select Cabinet members from elected officials currently in office, some of whom will need special elections to replace them. If Trump wins reelection, he may do the same. Voters need to be aware of and make their voices heard in elections, no matter what time of year — or in which year — they occur.
To stay informed about upcoming elections in your town, sign up for text or email reminders from TurboVote — which is also a quick and easy way to register to vote, check your registration or request an absentee ballot. Ballotpedia is a great resource for learning what’s on your ballot, especially since smaller elections don’t make mainstream news. Voting is a social, habitual activity. Whatever the outcome of the election today, let’s strive to create a culture of voting by reminding friends to participate in local races every year.
KARA O’ROURKE is a junior in Branford College. She is the Director of Finance and Operations for the Yale chapter of Every Vote Counts. Contact her at email@example.com.