“States are where all the action in domestic policymaking is.” This is what I learned from Jenna Bednar, a University of Michigan political science professor and specialist on federalism, when I sat down with her this week. We agreed that state elections are extraordinarily important and are often underrepresented in our country. Much of our country’s policy either originates from or is informed by state and local policies. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in his dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, “it is one of the happy incidents of the federal system, that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” TV comedian John Oliver, in a 2014 episode, cited that Congress passed 185 laws in that session. State legislatures, in the same time frame, passed more than 24,000. But why are state elections underrepresented if that is where most domestic policy comes from? Is there a certain group to blame?

Some might jump to blaming the media, and they would have a few fair points. We learn in our government classes in high school that elections are covered “like horse races.” It’s fun and exciting to track polling numbers up to election day, so that’s what the media often focuses on. It also makes sense for the national news media to focus on national news and elections, leaving states to fall by the wayside. Why should a person watching CNN in Florida care about Massachusetts’s state legislature election? Between 2003 and 2012, the newspaper workforce dropped 30 percent, including a significant cutback in those covering local and state politics for both local and national news. This has had several effects, including candidates less engaged with local news, along with those candidates relying on TV ads to get their messages out instead of interacting with the media.

Maybe the political parties are at fault. Another thing we learn in government is that the job of political parties is to get people elected. These parties do a great job of raising money and spending that money, but where? If you watch TV, you’ve almost certainly seen ads this election season for Senate and gubernatorial races. What about the state House of Representatives or state Senate? Follow the money. More than $2 billion was spent on the presidential race in 2016 and $4 billion was spent on all of the congressional races combined.

Perhaps it is just the nature of the local and state offices that doesn’t attract this attention. One point Bednar made was that at lower levels of government there is a higher likelihood of deviation from party doctrines. If these government officials are less likely to follow strict party lines, then it follows that parties would invest less money because they stand to get less in return.

It’d be easy to place the blame here on one single entity and move on, but an issue like this isn’t that simple. There’s plenty of blame to go around and some of that rightly falls on us. What was the last state issue you heard about? In Michigan, for many, it is probably the Flint water crisis. In this “information age” we have unprecedented access to so much information, but often we are only willing to take in so little. We stick to one cable news show or we have our favorite newspaper.

Election turnout is typically around 60 percent for presidential elections, but only 40 percent for midterms. It is even lower for primary, local and off-year elections. For example, in Dallas, only 6.1 percent of eligible voters participated in the mayoral election in May 2015. Turnout is less than 20 percent for 15 of the 30 most populous cities in the country in mayoral elections. Even in gubernatorial election years, turnout is low. In every gubernatorial election year since 1970, except for 2006, turnout was below 50 percent in Michigan. Most of the time the majority of people don’t vote if it isn’t a presidential election year. Generally speaking, in only one year out of every four does more than half of the electorate make their way to a ballot box.

Over the past few weeks, many of my professors have encouraged students to register by the Oct. 9 deadline. One of these professors told us that her opinion is that “if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain.” I would go further. If you don’t cast an informed vote, then you should not feel comfortable commenting at all. Take a minute to research the candidates on every level. You should know who is running for office in your community and have a general idea what they believe in, beyond the “R” or “D” next to their name. My father, for example, gets an absentee ballot, so he can sit at home with his laptop and research each candidate’s platform online as he fills in the bubbles.

We could blame the media, or political parties, or candidates, or some idea that our votes don’t matter, for why people can’t find their way to the ballot box and why many don’t have a strong grasp of the politics of their local community. I’d rather take the blame and the responsibility on myself to get informed and to do my part in deciding the future of this country. It’s just as easy to lie to yourself and say you’ll put effort into getting informed as it is to tell yourself that you’re going to start going to the gym. However, we have more to lose in our elections if we don’t get informed than we do if we skip the gym a few times, so please, find the ballot box but only after doing some research.

David Hayse can be reached at dhayse@umich.edu.

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