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The Appalling Apathy for Local Elections

Earlier this month the city in which I live held an election to recall the mayor and to vote on two city council seats. The recall effort was one of the more contentious local elections I’ve ever seen and the entire process dragged on for more than six months, from petition to campaign to voting day. The mayor and his supporters were claiming the city’s public safety unions were attempting a power play and wanted to install someone as mayor who would take orders from the unions. The public safety unions were claiming the mayor and the city manager were trying to close one of the city’s six fire stations and take a fire truck out of service, endangering the citizens and putting the city’s ISO insurance rating in jeopardy. Whichever side was right is irrelevant for the purposes of this post, but the result was the mayor was recalled by an overwhelming margin.

The relevant thing to note about this election is the abysmal turnout of the electorate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the over-18 population of my city is approximately 42,779. The total number of votes cast for mayor was 3,634 or about 8.5% of the voting-age population. The recall effort was well-publicized and both sides sent mailers to every residence in the city. And, no doubt, the men running for city council also campaigned and sent out mailers It’s beyond belief that 91.5% of the voting-age population in the city did not know about the election. Apparently, 39,145 people did not care enough about their own city government to be bothered with casting a vote. I find that repugnant.

I took some time to look at election results from other cities and other states and was not surprised to see similar instances of low voter turnout when only local races are on the ballot. An election last month for a school board seat that I read about had only five voters casting a ballot. Five! Even if the argument is used that people with no school-age children don’t care who is on the school board, I find it impossible to believe that in that entire district there are only five adults with children in school.

The obvious question is why? Why the apathy about local elections? Is it a lack of media attention? Is it the lack of partisan candidates? Do people just not care about an election that isn’t getting round-the-clock coverage like the current presidential campaign? Or is it that people just don’t think local races are important?

It’s probably a combination of all of those things and perhaps more. But people would be completely wrong to believe that local races aren’t important. I think the case can easily be made that local government has a much greater impact on people’s daily lives than anyone elected to county, state or federal office. Locally elected officials make decisions about business development, sales tax rates, zoning, schools and transportation. It’s the city government that maintains the city streets, plows snow and patches potholes. It’s the city that provides the local law enforcement and fire department. It’s the city that comes around and picks up your garbage. It’s the city that disposes of your sewage. And it’s the city that provides the water coming out of your faucet.

Ah, yes. The water. Ask the people in Flint, Michigan how important the local government is. Flint city leaders decided to change the city’s water source from treated water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The change resulted in corrosive river water causing lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing very high levels of lead. As many as 12,000 children were exposed to drinking water with lead and may experience a range of serious health problems. It’s also believed the water change is responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that has killed ten people and affected around seventy others so far.

Here in my own city, the city council is embroiled in a battle to prevent another city from dumping wastewater into the lake that is used by both cities for drinking water. I wonder how many people in my city are even aware of this.

Local elections do matter and they matter more than county, state or federal elections. It’s foolish for people to ignore them.

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