The importance of local elections and the role of local officials

The importance of local elections and the role of local officials

Voter turnout in America is painfully low — especially when the elections don't coincide with presidential races. How low? In 2012, only around one in four of the voting-eligible population showed up to the polls in New York and Texas' general elections. 

It's even lower for local elections. The lack of political engagement would suggest voters don't regard local elections as all that important. 

But they would be wrong. Here are just three crucial issues your local politicians can have considerable influence on.

Policing

For starters, there's the matter of policing and the parameters of law enforcement in different communities. 

"[This is] the most prominent example of the importance of local government — and its impact on civic equality," Sheila Suess Kennedy, a lawyer who teaches law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis wrote on Inequality.org.

Specifically, Kennedy pointed to the influence of local governments in instituting the use of body cameras, which has promoted accountability and shaped public discourse regarding law enforcement.

Schools

Many people might not know how crucial local officials are when it comes to the quality and kind of education provided to our nation's children. 

According to a Department of Education paper on local governments' role in schooling, "The local level of control is the heart of the U.S. education system at the primary and secondary levels."  

"Local communities operate schools, implement and enforce state laws and policies, develop and implement their own educational policies, hire and supervise professional teaching staffs, and raise money to pay for schools," the department adds. The paper also explains that these tasks are performed by people elected into school boards.

One of the more prominent examples of these officials' potential influence is that of the 2005 Kansas evolution hearings, in which the state's education authorities supported teaching intelligent design and questioned evolution.

Reproductive rights

Yes, even reproductive rights can be determined by local officials. Local laws and technicalities can make it much more difficult for women to access abortion providers.

In 2015, the city council of Manassas, Virginia, used new zoning restrictions to perpetuate an anti-abortion agenda and impede the creation of facilities offering abortion services, according to a report by the National Abortion Rights and Action League.

"Local elections matter, but with the media focused on the 2016 presidential candidates, voters may not realize the high stakes in the thousands of local races," Mary Turck, an adjunct faculty member in the Media and Cultural Studies department at Macalester College, wrote in an Al Jazeera op-ed in November 2015. She's also an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University, a lawyer and former community organizer.

"City, county, school board and other local government elections often carry immediate consequences for constituents," Turck added. 

So, it might actually be worth reading that pamphlet on your city council candidates before drawing the curtain on your polling booth this November.