Madeline Nowicki: Local elections matter

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 6:40pm

Michigan primary and local elections were held on Tuesday, August 2, and as I approached my polling place, I realized just how silent it was. A flurry of campaign signs dotted the grass outside the building, but indoors, I was the only voter. The man running my precinct laughed that I was the “after-work rush” they had been eagerly awaiting. How can a single person be a rush? Oh, that’s right — because there was nobody there for several hours prior to my arrival. In fact, the election officials informed me that I was the 11th voter that day. Eleventh.

I’m registered in an area that is primarily students and youth voters. Obviously, the fact that this election occurred at a time of year when many students are off-campus contributed to lower turnout at my polling place. Voter turnout at other stations or in other precincts was probably higher, just due to proportional populations. However, local and state elections are notorious for low turnouts. In this particular election, just a little more than 17 percent of registered voters in Washtenaw County turned out at the polls to exercise their right to representation.

Just 17 percent of people determined who would govern our city council. Just 17 percent of people dictated the fate of our state-level representation. Just 17 percent of people decided the best candidates for county office.

All this, in an election year — perhaps the most volatile, visible, voracious election year we’ve ever experienced. A year where young voters have been engaged, when first-time voters have been introduced to politics, when encroachments upon universal enfranchisement have been struck down. But simply making people aware of the fact that politics exists is not enough. Simply sharing John Oliver clips referring to Donald Trump by an ancient family name will not amount to direct, sustained, focused action. It may inspire people to care about issues of immigration policy or xenophobia, which are undoubtedly important. But clicking share will not alone amount to meaningful progress. If voters, particularly students and youth voters, want to fulfill their newfound political engagement and reap the benefits of representative democracy, it is essential to first represent themselves. Until 83 percent of people are not regularly failing to participate in local and state politics, real representative democracy will not be in place.

I know that reading about candidates’ views is not as sexy as watching Weekend Update or Stephen Colbert or (the late, great show from) Jon Stewart. It’s objectively more entertaining to laugh about impressions or the absurdity of the state of things today than it is to do the local work of actually changing the state of things today. Personally, I would much rather eat popcorn and hang out with friends and follow a political comedian on Snapchat rather than waking up early to canvass or register voters. I think everyone would. And I get that it’s more dramatic to wax poetic in the “great-man” style of history, envisioning an America that is shaped primarily and solely by the man (or woman) in the Oval Office. But evidentiary, tangible progress — whether it’s fixing roads or building a library for a community in need or creating extracurricular programs to teach students valuable skills or implementing city-wide environmental safety measures to prevent massive public health crises — comes at the local and state levels. No matter how much you agree or disagree with a president, your representation in your immediate communities will ultimately influence your life, your health, your wallet and your happiness more.

If you are a Democrat wondering why Republicans control the majority of governorships and state houses, giving a leg up on agenda setting, local and state elections are the way forward toward change. If you are a Republican wondering how an unfit demagogue is dominating and drowning out the conservative ideals you believe in, local and state elections are your opportunity to find honest candidates driven by integrity to fight for your beliefs. If you are a third-party voter hungry for more representation of your Libertarian or environmentalist or other priorities, local and state elections matter. If you are undecided but fed up with the current state of polarization and impersonalization in politics, local and state elections are your opportunity to weigh the candidates on issues that matter to you and your community directly, intimately — local and state elections matter.

So, local and state elections are important. What do you do next? How do you be one of the people who helps boost that percentage from 17 percent to perhaps something a bit more representative? Register to vote. Find out when elections are happening. Become informed on local, state and federal issues and candidates. Encourage friends and family to participate. Attend a city council or school board meeting and give your input, or check out a speech, rally, town hall or public event for a candidate you want to learn more about. And actually get out there — exercise the fundamental right of democracy and go to the polls.

Madeline Nowicki can be reached at nowickim@umich.edu