When it comes to making one vote count, start with local ballot boxes
By: Alex Jenson
In the 2010 Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) court case, limits on independent political spending by corporations were abolished. Within four years, the amount of money spent by outside parties of interest on U.S. Senate races had doubled to over $400 million. And it has only gone up since then.
Most of this money comes from a small group of 195 extremely wealthy families. In such an environment, citizens may question how they can make their voice heard. The high-profile races that send men and women to Washington D.C. may hold one’s attention, but often individual influence is weak.
Combatting this weak influence begins at the local level. Here, individuals wield their greatest power. City council districts can vary widely in size, from a couple hundred residents in rural areas to over 250,000 per district in Los Angeles. Comparatively, there are around 700,000 people in the average federal congressional district. This means that one’s voice is much more likely to attract the attention of a city councilman, especially since participation in city elections is extremely sparse.
In a very real sense, local governmental bodies like city councils have by far the greatest influence on the life of every citizen within their district.
Curt Skoog, a city councilman of Overland Park, Kansas, said “The city is responsible for almost everything the citizen takes for granted. Streets, water, sewers, land use. If there isn’t a good government there, quality of life goes down.”
For example, local government is what prevents a neighbor from installing a five-story office building on their property, thus driving down the values of every home in the neighborhood. This sentiment was echoed by Wayne Byrd, a former city councilman in Overland Park, Kansas.
According to Byrd, the state and the federal government only touch the average taxpayer’s life in a very broad sense, but the city is in charge of fixing the roads they drive on every day, ensuring they have access to clean water, forcing individuals to maintain their homes and keeping property values up. In the more political sense, local ordinances can be drafted to prevent discrimination, or raise the minimum wage.
By the very nature of the city’s power over its residents, it is also very easy for citizens who are aware of it to make their voices heard.
Both Skoog and Byrd noted how easy it was for citizens to get in contact with them. Unlike a federal official, the vast majority of city councilmen don’t have interns who will scan an email to decide if it warrants a response by the official in power. They can also be contacted over social media or called on the phone.
In addition, Byrd said that citizens do have the ability to schedule time to speak at city council meetings, and that for those that ask, permission is almost always granted. This could be likened to a town hall, except it occurs at the same time and the same place, and prospective speakers have less competition.
The only act more powerful than testimony is running for office which, in local elections, is much more affordable than it is elsewhere. In Overland Park, it costs $10 to register and become eligible for the office. In Iowa, there are no filing fees for registration.
Additionally, given the smaller district size and the low turnout in local races, hard work and determination can actually win out. Comparatively, Maplight, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that researches money in politics, put the cost of winning a Federal House seat at close to $1.7 million.
The oldest and most basic of actions, the vote, is also extremely valuable in an election that will likely have a low turnout. Any citizen who takes this action alone is making their voice heard.
Both Byrd and Skoog noted that time and complacency are the main reasons for low participation in local government. Skoog believes most people have no interest in what their city council does unless it is very obviously failing in its duties, and the water goes bad, or the roads become littered with potholes. Most Americans are by now so used to the basic luxuries that the city provides they forget the work and cost required to maintain them.
Another barrier is time. Most individuals feel that they are simply too busy in their everyday life. Byrd said that many individuals would rather take their free time and spend it on family or celebration instead of making their voice heard.
Finally, too many citizens feel that their voice doesn’t matter. Yet, the rare individuals who are willing to spend their time on making their voice heard, and who remember that they own the government, will find that they have far more power than any of their peers thought they possessed.
Blindly checking boxes at the voting booth will not likely prompt social change. Working to be heard in the city council isn’t as likely to be as glamorous as volunteering as an aide to a senator, or campaigning on behalf of a gubernatorial candidate. But, local government is where the individual is most able to influence the course of a race. It is where the individual can most effectively change the community they live in.