We’ve all kept our eyes peeled on the news for national election updates, waiting with bated breath to see who would win the presidential race or the special election in Georgia. But have you ever refreshed Twitter, concerned to see the ballot counts for your local town’s mayor or to be updated on the city council election? Probably not.
When we think about voting, most people will picture ballots cast every four years, a Democratic and Republican candidate, and constant CNN coverage in the weeks leading up to Election Day. However, there are dozens of other positions and propositions to vote on at a local level. Perhaps the lack of interest stems from the difficulty in learning about the candidates or positions, due to less media coverage.
Nevertheless, local elections are just as important as national elections, because they decide so many things that will affect us in our daily lives. From public transit to school quality, the list can go on and on, even down to how clean the water is when you brush your teeth every day.
“Local elections are the time where we are really deciding on the people who make decisions that truly impact our day to day lives,” King County Elections Communications Officer Halei Watkins said. “At the local level we see folks making decisions about how our tax dollars are spent on schools and our roads and our parks.”
Local elections and public officials have also lead the way in various national movements. Landmark policies such as women’s suffrage, marriage equality, minority rights and environmental protections all started at the local level.
Even though local elections are the place where many decisions that impact members of a town or community are made, there’s less young people voting in them than in national elections. “We’re at about 24 percent turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds in this most recent primary,” Watkins said. “[Eighteen] to 24 year olds continue to have lower turnout than those who are 65 plus.” With less than a quarter of young voters turning out for local elections, these big decisions will more likely fall into the hands of older voters, making the outcomes less representative of the overall population.
Voting in local elections also means that your vote will count a lot more. With an average of one in five voters participating in local elections, decisions can really be swayed by just one vote. Local governments share over $2 trillion of spending power, so voting in local elections can make sure that it’s being spent in a way that represents all interests.
With local elections holding so much importance and young voters showing up to the polls at lower rates, national programs are being implemented to help encourage young people to register to vote and cast their ballots. “We have a program that we’re really super proud of called the Voter Education Fund, which administers grant funds of almost a million dollars out to small community-based organizations that are already working in the communities that we most want to reach, which are young people, limited English speakers, those with disabilities, our unhoused population, formerly incarcerated people and people of color,” Watkins said.
Another cause behind low voter turnout is the timing of elections. Most local elections are held on odd-numbered years, which doesn’t match up with the biannual timing or once every four years. When local elections are not held at the same time as national or state elections, voters have to take further steps to learn when to vote, where to vote and what they’re voting on. This is a challenge for new voters who might not have experience voting in elections. For example, when Baltimore moved to on-cycle elections, voter turnout went from just 13 percent in the last election before the switch, to 60 percent in the first on-cycle election.
But even with these solutions, there is still work to be done. There are only so many programs or date switches that people can do to get voters out to the ballots, and officials elected by demographics who have strong turnout on local elections no matter the timing may resist the switch. The main shift will come from the voters themselves, making a plan to cast their ballots or petition their governments to make it easier to vote.
The record turnout of the 2020 election shows that there’s a population of voters who are clearly willing to make change in their communities, and a generation of young people who are ready to cast their vote for the first time. Voting in local elections is more important than ever, and we should all take that passion to the polls.