August 5, 1996. It was just after breakfast when I found myself navigating the musty-stale smelling basement of the courthouse in search of the office of voter registration. It was my 18th birthday, and I was stoked to register to vote in an upcoming presidential election. I knew through History class, my own reading, and PBS documentaries how women had long fought for suffrage before winning the right to cast their ballot in 1920. I also knew that my home state of Tennessee had been the deciding vote in giving women the right to vote and thought about that fact as I presented my Tennessee driver's license to the registration office worker. I was signing up to do what so many women before me had not been able to -- use my voice in a meaningful way politically.
I've always had a bend towards politics and advocacy. In high school, I ran for student government twice, but -- alas -- I was beaten by girls who didn't have the burden of frizzy hair and Sally Jessie Raphael glasses. As a middle schooler, I once made picket signs with my sister upon hearing that our parents were planning on getting rid of our cats. There's no telling what the neighbors thought about us as we paraded up and down the driveway chanting, "Keep our cats! Keep our cats!"
Although these are super-bad examples of my affinity for politics, they display the starry-eyed dream I have for the thought that your voice can make a difference. It was that idealistic mentality that made this 18 year-old girl descend into the dank courthouse basement on a bright and early summer morning.
"Yaaaaay! I can vote! I can vote!" I sang to the wrinkle-faced gentleman who had taken all of my paperwork.
"Yes, yes you can." he replied in a flat monotone before shouting above my shoulders, "Next!"
His curmudgeon attitude had no effect on my mood that afternoon. I hopped back into my car, flipped the radio to the talk radio station my dad listened to, and let the political viewpoints bounce around inside my head. I was positively giddy as I imagined pulling the lever next to the candidate of my choosing.
I have voted in every presidential election since, and have even worked at a grassroots level on some campaigns. Back in 2000, I made nearly a thousand phone calls to registered voters in my county to urge them to vote for a certain candidate. I won't tell you which one, but his middle initial starts with "Dubya." (I know, I know. I've since mended my ways and have worked to help right -- I mean left -- this personal misstep.) I considered myself fairly knowledgeable about politics and even took pride in being a political activist! I took my civic duty as a voter seriously, and bragged about my consistent voting record.
However, I have been woefully wrong, and recently have been made aware that I should be ashamed and disgraced at myself as a voter.
I'm in good company though, chances are, you ought to be disgraced too.
I've never voted in a local election.
I'm not talking about when there's a candidate for governor, state representative, or senator on the ballot during a presidential election -- I'm talking about the local offices in the county. To be specific, the mayor, sheriff, and county commissioners.
Not only have I never voted for them, but I wasn't even aware most of the offices existed!
Like I said, I am thoroughly ashamed at my ignorance, and wish to share with you my most recent experiences.
In September, I landed my dream job as a Children's Librarian. I could write a hundred or more articles about how much I love what I do, but they will have to wait for another time. I never imagined that my job would hurl me right into local politics, but money, and the lack of it, has a way of making you pay attention, doesn't it?
Our county commission has the daunting task of figuring out how to pay for a new jail and a new school -- all while not creating a giant new tax burden on the residences. They have obviously looked at cutting the fat out of their budgets to make room for these new buildings and the running of them. This means that they have looked at, among other departments, the libraries in the county. Without going into too much detail, let me just say that our library patrons have used their right to voice their opinion about how important the library is to their community. Through this, I've had the opportunity to attend three county commission meetings, and a few budget and finance committee meetings. It has made for interesting discussion about how to best solve this financial dilemma which must feel to the commission like being stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.
It was through my attendance in these meetings that I made a discovery: The local government handles so much that directly affects the citizens of the county. Among other things, the county commission makes decisions regarding: schools and their funding, property tax, wheel tax, 911 commission, Sheriff's budget, library funding, parks and rec, road maintenance, water and sewerage, fire department funding, liquor by the drink availability and tax, approving the selling of or purchasing of county land, enticing big business to come into the county, organizing and funding solid waste management, and developing and approving of a county budget.
Basically, where I get my water, where my trash goes, the roads I drive on, the schools my kids attend, the taxes I pay, the parks we picnic and play in, the library I work at, (and patronized prior to my employment there) and the fact that I can order a margarita at the Mexican restaurant are all dependent on votes cast by my county neighbors serving on the county commission.
Local government is small government, yes -- but it has a big impact on my household. Truth be told, it has a big impact on your household too, and we all need to be voting.
Do you know how much your vote counts? Let me put it to you like this.
In the county I work in, there are approximately 32,000 registered voters. In the May primary only 4,600 voted. In most districts, there are about 2,000 registered voters. If only 10 percent vote, you can certainly see how your vote could be the one that makes the commissioner win 101 votes to 99! Your voice literally counts, and it is desperately needed.
Do you know what district you live in? Do you know who is running for your commission seat? Do you know where they stand on the issue of educational funding, library funding, or property tax? Do you know where your polling location is? Do you know commission meetings are open to the public? Do you know that your commissioner would love to hear from you? Do you know how much you matter to the running of your county?
I didn't, but I do now -- and on August 7, 2014, I'll be walking into a warm and welcoming country church fellowship hall and casting my vote for county commissioner. I invite you to do the same.