Why You Should Care About Local Elections

By Zachary Emanuel.

Half of 1% of all internet traffic goes to sites covering local news and politics.

In cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Washington DC, good turnout for a high profile local election, like mayor, garners about a quarter of all eligible voters turning out.

In Los Angeles, there are 2.5 times more college students then there are people who did not vote for Eric Garcetti in his most recent election, as only 20% of people eligible to vote did so. 

During the 2018 Midterm elections, the last Federal Election held, almost 58% of Angelenos voted. In the last presidential election, over ⅔ did.

There are over half a million elected civil servants in the United States.

Only 537 of them are federally elected.

Over 99% of Americans never visited a site that covered over 99% of their elected representation in Hindman’s 2011 report. 

People aged 18-29 have the lowest turnout in elections out of any age bracket tracked.

The reason I introduce all of these statistics is to demonstrate how often, how little Americans care about their local representation. Right now I am witnessing (and doing my best to respectfully participate in) one of the most powerful exercisements of constitutional rights I have ever seen.  The mass protests that have erupted in our nation since the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd has offered some of the most dramatic reforms to our society since I have been born. 

The City Council of Minneapolis has a supermajority in support of dismantling its police department. In Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti has already agreed to reallocate $250 million dollars to investments in the Black Angeleno Community. Mayor De Blasio of New York announced a shift in resources from NYPD to social services.

All of this has been accomplished in the backdrop of a global pandemic, during the “11th hour” of many of these budget finalizations. In many cases, students are one of the major forces in these protests. It is why I pray that this energy, this involvement, is maintained. Not just in the immediate push, but over the long haul. 

The state of California elects its Sheriffs and its District Attorneys. The Mayor and City Council control budgets, not just for Police Departments, but social services, education, public transit, zoning rules. These are the people who control your everyday life.

I would be remiss to not first discuss the justice implications of local elections in the face of the calls for reform being articulated today.

Los Angeles Country accounts for 70,000 of the 240,000 felonies prosecuted below the federal level in the State of California. 

In a given year, the United States Department of Justice only filed 7,356 in the state.

You may ask yourself, why doesn’t the Attorney General of California step in with regards to decide who to charge? While in theory, the AG has the ability to supersede local prosecution, the act of doing so is not only rare, but would be difficult to execute on a large scale. There are 4 times as many attorneys in the District Attorney's office throughout the state then there are in the AG’s office. Furthermore, the constitution of the state requires the Attorney General’s office to defend prosecutions on appeal, with the only recourse to decline is if there is a constitutional objection.  With the caseload and lack of manpower, charging decisions rest in the hands of local District Attorneys. 

Prior to being prosecuted however, many cases go through the hands of the local county sheriff’s office, another locally elected position. In many places, Sheriff’s Offices have the discretion of when to make arrests, what to make them for, and how exactly to conduct their police work. For instance, a sheriff may decline to enforce a curfew, such as seen in LA.

The broader side of local politics extends far beyond the reaches of the traditional justice system. City Councils often control zoning ordinances, and the funding for resources within them, whether they be schools, healthcare, shelters, etc.

If you are worried about gentrification in your local neighborhood, the rules governing what kind of businesses can move in is a local election issue.School funding and curriculum is either controlled by school boards, or in larger cities like NYC, the local Department of Education. Transit, whether fares, stops, or lines, is a local election issue. Your local politics are your everyday life. 

In conversation with Anushka, one of the founders of GEN-ZiNE, she defined the American political system better and more concise than almost any other way I have heard:

“National Politics = Culture, Local Politics = Action.”

In this time of activists, protests, and reformers taking direct action, I pray that Americans, particularly like younger Americans of my generation, of my younger brother’s generation, take the action that best exemplifies the promise of America, not just in our federal elections, but our local ones too.

Vote as if your life depends on it.

Even more, vote as if someone else’s does.