A sign that says "vote for mayor" sits on a lawn.
Design by Priya Ganji. Buy this photo.

Every four years, we are hounded with constant reminders to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Phone calls, television advertisements, news segments, social media posts and more are indicators that we should head to the polls and cast our ballots for a specific candidate to take the highest office in the United States. We deem this measure, voting for a single government official at the top of our government, to be the most important impact we can have on democracy as voters, and I would agree that this is somewhat true. 

While electing federal representatives — such as your president, your senator and your district’s U.S. House representative — are key choices, the most important choice we can make at the ballot box is choosing our local representatives. For the past few weeks, the lawns in my neighborhood have become littered with signs advocating for certain candidates, and the sheer number of advertisements I have seen and voicemails I have heard sponsored by hopeful contenders make me feel flooded with information. Still, no matter how many commercials and informational flyers we are exposed to every day, we are never as rallied to vote in our local elections as we are in national ones. If we don’t focus on local politics with equivalent enthusiasm, we fail to fully engage with the issues that matter the most to us.

As opposed to the federal level, where there are typically longer waits between election cycles, local elections occur every year. Although they take place more often and there are more positions up for grabs, there is a certain level of confusion as to which roles in government are available at the local level and what exactly they do. In order to better immerse ourselves in politics, we must be able to clearly understand what we are voting for; a major reason why voter turnout is low is because of uncertainty about who and what we are voting for, along with unclear voting rules. We tend not to notice that the local level of government almost exactly resembles the structure of our federal government: each city and town has its own executive, legislative and judicial branch. Not only are their foundations similar, but their importance can be equated as well — local politics are just as important, if not more important, as the contests on the national stage.

The outcomes of local elections determine the fate of the issues that are most impactful in our everyday lives. The officials that we elect to our city councils and mayoral offices directly serve our community interests: matters such as schooling, housing and public safety are affected by the decisions made by our local representatives. Local elections are concerned with local issues, which, whether we acknowledge it or not, are policy choices that we interact with every single day. The decisions that our municipal and county officials make are essential in determining our quality of life as we interact with our neighborhoods. Often, the closer the representatives are to us, the more meaningful their policies are to our day-to-day lives.

Despite the essential nature of our local government, voters still tend to pay less attention to these elections as compared to those at the national level. We tend to view the presidency as the most important position in the U.S. government, but, in reality, our state and city officials are the ones assigned to protect and care for their community members in a more attentive fashion. Local politicians are responsible for the welfare of their localities and must pay attention to the needs and interests of a much smaller number of constituents. In taking our votes in our local races more seriously, we can make real change in our neighborhoods and elect officials whose sole responsibility is to act in accordance with our best interests.

Not only do the outcomes of local elections mean more for our livelihoods, but our votes tend to mean more as well. A recent upsurge of voter apathy is a result of the lack of faith in the democratic process, especially at the national level. Voters are becoming increasingly unsure if the casting of their ballot makes any real difference, but, when it comes to voting for a city council representative or district attorney, our voice at the polls is much more effective. With fewer voters involved, as compared to a presidential election, a single vote for a local politician has the potential to affect who gets a seat at the table. Not only do local politics impact us personally, we as voters have the power to alter the future of our communities when we cast our ballots.

With continuously high voter turnout rates, the voting population of Ann Arbor must actively focus their energy into local races. This election cycle, nine Washtenaw County commissioners, the mayor of Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor City Council members were up for election — all positions that will impact both University of Michigan students and permanent residents of the city. A ballot measure concerning public transportation funding was also approved in Tuesday’s election, a choice that will drastically impact the community and improve current transportation services. These choices weigh heavily on the county, the city and the University, and it is essential that those able to vote in these elections take the time and care to do so in future election cycles.

While political disinterest grows each day at the national level, we must avoid complete detachment by turning the conversation towards the importance of local issues. Nationwide, people have the same concerns — such as education, healthcare and safety — all matters whose most tangible impacts tend to come down to the decision making of our community leaders. If we desire politicians that consider our best interests and pass policies that are specifically catered towards us, we must vote decisively and wisely in our local elections. We must treat seemingly small city council races with the same respect as a major Senate campaign; both have drastic effects on our daily lives, and their outcomes have the potential to shape the future political environment. When we confidently make change at the local level, we can inspire hope that further progress is possible, a necessary feeling in a time where advancement often feels infeasible.

Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at lindssp@umich.edu