Pennsylvania, United States: The biggest challenge in small-time elections is getting people to care. The world of local politics is practically alien to national campaigns and advocacy because without the appeal of charming candidates, rallies, and broad national debate, very few people pay attention. But they should. Over the past few months, I helped a campaign for a county judge who was objectively the most qualified candidate and a profoundly good and just person – and she lost. Although judges on this level change no policy and are not politically affiliated, we ended up on the Democratic ballot along with two Republicans, thanks to a primary and cross-filing system that’s unimportant to this story. The region consists of one small city with prominent hipster-y art and music scene, surrounded by a quiet but proud river, dappled mountains, and rural voters. The city dwellers outnumber the rest, pulling registration towards the Democratic side, but with a disappointing 10 percent turnout, we were defeated by a small margin.
This is important because the other candidates were primarily prosecutors with a lock ‘em up streak, something that will have profound, though perhaps unseen, affects in our tight-knit community. An empathetic leader willing to do unglamorous volunteer work like sitting on orphans’ court would have been a welcome addition to the bench, but even with an active volunteer base and our best efforts, two things lead to our defeat.
The first was a lack of grassroots organization that could help support us. We didn’t have much money, and you’d be amazed by how expensive it is to run even a small campaign, from TV ads to hundreds of signs and shirts and buttons and stickers and all the other swag that comes with a campaign. On the national level, political parties bring with them money and influence, but our local party had neither. It was closer to a small social club than an activist organization; having lived in the area before moving to D.C. and still operating a business there, this was my first encounter with the party apparatus. I could wax about social media presence and fundraising, but the primary problem was that most people don’t care to engage with their local parties. Going to dorky meetings or sad fundraisers (with what may be a Mean Girls-esque ingroup) aren’t exactly how most people think they should spend their evenings, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If more people were willing to engage with a party even with entrenched, outdated attitudes, it can become dynamic and diverse. They’re called parties for a reason.
The second problem we encountered is voter apathy. Many just vaguely knew an election was coming because of the yard signs that dotted the highways and public spaces like smallpox. Few research down ballot positions, and even fewer know what those positions do (Prothonotary? Court of Common Pleas?). I’m not just pessimistic; most of the studies I’ve come across also point to an electorate that doesn’t know much about policy or even has a cohesive opinion about any one issue. Most people vote based on their affinity towards a specific party (or against another) and with their social or interest group, if they identify with one. Voter turnout in presidential years is up to about 60 percent because presidents are symbolic and can saturate culture with their campaigns – but people don’t vote in off-year elections. This applies most to the U.S. but I suspect we see echoes of similar apathy in places with parliamentary systems.
Instead hand wringing about whether people should, let’s for a moment accept that they don’t. People care about what’s on Netflix, what they’re eating to dinner, and what celebrities are up to because it brings them joy and has a clear effect on their daily lives, while politics seems distant, frustrating, and confusing.
Instead of trying to convince someone to change their opinion, activists alchemize change by convincing people who are vaguely interested in politics to vote instead of staying home. With turnout so low in local elections, each person has a higher percentage of the vote – you matter more in your hometown or county. Increasing turnout can only make the results more representative of the people’s voice. Not only that, future leaders are grown in small time politics, rising through the ranks to someday become national figures. A local party has potential to be an intimate community of like-minded people who enjoy spending time together, and if activism is a fun social activity, it becomes easier. As Emma Gray told me in our interview, friends can hold each other accountable and do more good than a single activist. It doesn’t need to be dramatic or immediate, but making your politics a part of your everyday life can hopefully inspire your network to take a more active interest in their civic duties.
Title image credit Keeshi Ingram shutterstock.com