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The Importance of Participation in Local Politics

2011/09/03

This is a variant of an article I’ve been thinking of for a while, and finally got around to putting it together for the “open topic” speech in the Intro to Public Speaking class I’m taking.

One of the biggest issues facing candidates for local offices is the lack of voter turnout; everyone has an opinion about local politics, but getting more than a small percentage to actually go vote is extremely difficult.  Our city has a population of just over 17,000 people, 8,608 of which are registered to vote.  Of those, 779 – barely nine percent of the registered voters – turned out to vote in the May election.  In the three contested city council races, the winning margins were 418, 83 and 24 votes; the number of people in a typical college class would have changed the outcome of one race, and the lunchtime crowd at any fast food restaurant would easily have changed the outcome of two.  These results aren’t unusual, unfortunately; in last year’s election, the city’s turnout was 694, and it rarely exceeds ten percent of registered voters, or six percent of the total population.

Based on the total turnout last election, anyone receiving 390 votes would have been assured of victory in a two-way race, and 347 would have been enough to win in 2010.  Effectively, this means that two percent of the city’s population determines the outcome of the local elections.  The most common reason people give for not voting in any particular election is that they feel their vote won’t matter, and so it’s not worth the effort to get to the polls, yet four times as many people vote in state and Federal elections as in local elections where their vote is likely to make a real difference.

Of course, to a candidate, this means that it’s only necessary to persuade three to four hundred voters, rather than the eight to nine thousand that the population count would suggest, or even the four thousand that the voter registration numbers imply.  To all of us, however, it means that any minority capable of swaying just over two percent of the people of our city can easily take over its government. The only way to prevent this is to get more informed voters to the polls.

Among the reasons for the lack of voter participation is the difficulty of obtaining reliable information on local politics and candidates; in recent years, newspapers may carry only one or two political articles of local interest in a month, even when there are ten or more items on that month’s meeting agenda, and in a town without significant competition in radio and TV broadcast markets, neither of these becomes a good source for information.  The majority of the people I spoke  during my campaign weren’t even aware that there were elections in May, nor were many of them familiar with the city council or the school board.   On the other hand, as internet access has become more and more widespread, individual bloggers are starting to fill this gap in some areas.  The ease of use of such media, and the ability to reach a large audience without the cost of traditional media, and the simple fact that there’s always room for another viewpoint, even on a well-covered subject, has made the internet an excellent resource for candidates and voters alike.

I hope that some of you will take the time to attend local government meetings, learn about the processes involved in city, county and school district business, and share the information you obtain with others, but mostly I hope that you will all seek out information about local candidates for these offices, and will use that information to participate in your local government in the most important way; by being an informed voter.

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