Why Do Local Elections Matter?

Sep 30, 2016

In the weeks leading up to the November 8th election, WFSU is bringing you coverage of the local issues voters are wrestling with this season. We're kicking off the series by asking why do local elections matter anyway?

Credit Thomas Hawk via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

It’s easy for flashy, months-long presidential campaigns to overshadow smaller races down the ballot - county commissioner, sheriff, superintendent, water management district representative. But, the president is the most important office, right? And all the big issues are settled in Washington, aren’t they? So why do those other races matter? Polly McAuliffe is an American government teacher at Leon High School, and she and her students wrestle with those questions all the time.

“This is the first time that many of them have given any thought to politics. Not all families sit around and talk about politics at the dinner table,” she said.

For a lot of McAuliffe’s students, it’s easy to overlook government, to not see the role it plays in their lives.

“It impacts them every day. On their way too school, at school. It’s all around them,” McAuliffe said.

Roads, streetlights, school zoning, gun access, healthcare, clean water and decent internet, and as many Tallahassee residents recently experienced, the very electricity that flows into our air conditioners, refrigerators and televisions: state and local officials have a hand in all of those issues, and they’re calling the shots right now.

"One of the ironies is that the local government is the government closest to the people," says Florida State University political scientist Carol Weissert.

“You go to the grocery store and you run into your county commissioner or you see him on the street. You have a much greater chance of knowing your local officials and really making an impact,” she said.

She says not only can individuals influence local lawmakers, it’s those local policies that have the greatest impact. For example, lawmakers in Washington don’t decide when streetlights turn red.

At a recent rally at Florida’s capitol, attendees called for an increase in the minimum wage. The federal government sets a floor, but states can raise it. 

“When workers’ rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up fight back! What do we do? Stand up fight back!” they chanted.

Labor Organizer Maria Jose Hayes understands why voters can get turned off by partisan politics. But she says whether it’s criminal justice reform or clean water or the minimum wage, local officials are working on those issues, regardless of voter turnout.

“If you’re outside of the political system you have people who don’t have your interests at heart, making those decisions for you. So you really can’t afford to be outside of the political system. You don’t necessarily have to like the two party system. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t push for more candidates that align with you values in a local election,” she said.

Liz Joyner heads the local civics group the Village Square, and she knows all to well how national politics can dominate the conversation.

"It's kind of like mud wrestling over here, or come discuss local ordinance 759 over there. So it's kind of silly for us to think that human beings are going to go with the local ordinance," she said.

But she says there’s a lot more at stake here. For Joyner the very health of American democracy depends on robust political activity at the local level.

“I truly believe it is everything. Until we intentionally rebuild those connections right here in our hometown, there’s really not a hope that it’s gonna be any different in Washington,” Joyner said.

There’s still time to look over those local races, and to find out what the soil and water conservation district actually does. Election Day is Tuesday, November 8th.