For Georgia Weekly Post by Mark Rickards
Political hysteria continues to blast us each day. Donald Trump has surrounded himself with people oddly, financially connected to Russia. Hillary Clinton and her associates took control of the Democratic Party to rig the primaries in her favor. Other countries increasingly distrust America. Citizens squabble over who is to blame for the latest gun massacre. The political polarization and rhetoric has people fired up and ready to go to battle. But on a local level, where government actually has a greater impact on their lives, voters sit on their hands and do very little.
I ran for a city council seat in a small town. Most yards are nicely manicured here and folks recognize many of their neighbors at the grocery store. Our church pews are filled on Sundays and we support our Boy Scout troops and high school football teams. The public parks are busy with mothers in yoga outfits pushing their strollers as they walk the paths lined with newly planted trees. We even have quite a diverse representation of residents from around the globe who live here and have few qualms – though they are mostly confined to the apartment complexes.
As dystopian of a view our outer skin of small-town life portrays, we are very divided on the political spectrum. About half of the registered voters in my city supported Hillary in the last presidential election, while the other half voted for Trump. These flanks have not been forgotten and we remember who had which candidate’s campaign sign in their yards. Local Facebook groups and monthly meetings of residents have formed to plot their game plans to be stronger for the next presidential election.
Cable news ratings soar with each emotional outburst from Nancy Pelosi or from an outlandish tweet from our President. There are always politicians pontificating about the televised protests of Antifa members clashing with white supremacists across the nation. I believed with such attention my community has expended vocalizing their interests in the national scene, my candidacy could tap into the feverish pitch of those seeking to influence who is in power.
The late Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, is often noted for his comment, "all politics is
local". His adage seems to have withered over the years. When I asked residents what concerns them the most in my quest for political office, I often heard issues about schools, but I also was told we need to fix our immigration policies and get tax reform: nothing to do with a local city council.
During the past presidential election more than half of the registered voters in my city showed up at the polls. Yet, for this city council election, it was approximately 17 percent. That’s 17 percent of the only 65 percent who are registered. That’s abysmal.
The candidates I faced were part of the “establishment”. They garnered their votes through the tried-and-true method of networking their connections. That’s the system and it works. So I ran hard to motivate those who sought to upset the apple cart. You know, the segment of voters who are so furious with “politics as usual”, they’ll seek a candidate who is independent of the R or D next to a name. However, many said if I didn’t pick a side, even for a non-partisan election, I was not going to gain traction. I tried to suggest that with an expectation of low voter turnout, the numerous voters who weren’t expected to show up could greatly outnumber those who regularly do.
There was early voting for an entire week during this election. There was of course absentee voting. And on Election Day, the polls were open for 12 hours. Yet, despite the attempts to make voting rather simple and convenient, the numbers of voters indicates that local elections, at least in my city, is not worthy of participation. Street paving, city taxes, bike lanes, parks, crime and zoning issues don’t generate enough importance in the minds of my city’s residents. Only 11 percent of the city’s adult population voted. Let’s look at the math in reverse: Eighty-three percent of registered voters didn’t take the time to vote.
I can cite the clichés of people who fought and died for the right to vote. I can recall images of women and minorities being denied the opportunity to vote. So can everyone else. Yet, those mentions in our history books or from our old uncles just don’t muster enthusiasm to vote.
I used fliers, door-to-door canvasing, social media, yard signs, phone calls, text messaging, meetups, newspaper advertising and mailings. My opponents did much of that as well. So while my message may not have resonated with everyone, it’s safe to say no one’s did, as so few people voted.
In reflecting on what it takes to get someone to vote locally, I’m torn. Perhaps more controversy is needed on an issue, a salacious scandal, or an impeding tax hike. Though, I’d like to have faith that people will vote for their vision of the future and not a current cable news headline. All politicians claim to be working for the children. Yet, the parents of those children have proven, on a local level, they really don’t give a damn. The micropolitics of achieving local voter participation is a challenge that my city failed in, and I am not sure how to remedy it.
A city council member appears to be such a small position in the world. Most residents can’t name the person who represents them. Practically no one actually attends city council meetings or even know when they are held.
There will be elections held again in two years for city council in my city. That’s not much time to shift the paradigm of voter apathy.