By Thomas Kennedy
During the 2016 election cycle, I frequently heard people complaining about the impossibility of escaping the daily barrage of news and coverage regarding the Presidential race. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent more than $6.8 billion to ensure that their messages reached voters. The massive price tag ensured an over-saturation of advertising in various forms of media.
Despite this massive price tag for voter outreach, 43 percent of Americans did not vote in 2016, outnumbering those who voted for Clinton, Trump or a third-party candidate. That translates to around 100 million Americans who decided to sit out the election.
Voter apathy in the United States is by no means a new trend. For decades now, about 90 million voters abstain from casting a ballot in the presidential elections every four years. Elections in America have not reached more than 60 percent voter turnout since 1968. The trend is even worse for midterm elections, with less than 40 percent of voters participating since 1970.
Some of these numbers can surely be attributed to both voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression tactics designed to keep certain demographics from voting, but there is also truth in that general voter apathy is a problem in this country.
This is especially true in local elections.
The median voter age in recent mayoral elections across 50 U.S. cities was 57 years old. Studies have shown time and again that not only is voter turnout in mayoral elections older, but hardly anybody bothers to vote in these elections, averaging a low of 21 percent as of 2011.
This lack of voter engagement has negative implications for vulnerable communities. It allows whiter, upper middle class, older voters who are not representative of the larger electorate to dominate turnout. It creates a dynamic in which candidates and elected officials are more beholden to special interests and high dollar donations to their campaigns, rather than accountability to the public. The results are bad representation for working-class folks and minorities through the uneven prioritization of public spending and policy.
This is all unfortunate because there is no level of government more responsible in making a direct impact in our daily life than our local elected officials. The quality of schools in our community, deciding sanctuary jurisdiction status, public safety and police accountability, affordable housing, public transit, policies that criminalize drug use, job training programs and climate resiliency are among some of the many important issues determined by our local government.
In our current political climate, it is especially important that local elected officials be held accountable to stand up and protect the most vulnerable in our communities. For example, local elected leaders can provide relief and security to immigrants under attack by the federal government’s deportation machine. Our local governments can make sure that immigrant families in our communities are protected from separation by curtailing penalties for minor offenses, ensuring that police officers do not act as immigration enforcement, and refusing to cooperate with unconstitutional requests by federal immigration agencies.
This November, elections will be held in 59 of the 100 largest cities in the country. This includes elections for 36 mayoral offices, 31 municipal officials, 367 city council seats, 50 special district officials and a governor’s race in New Jersey and Virginia.
Take the time, make sure your voice is heard and go cast your vote.
Thomas Kennedy is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.