Inside a newsroom, even the smallest election is enough to generate excitement. We’ve usually spent time with the candidates, maybe sat down with them over cups of coffee, so we are, at the very least, interested in the outcome. Besides, we’re witnessing democracy in action, right?
The trouble is, with voter turnout rates hovering around 25 percent for local elections and 55 percent for presidential elections, the results aren’t actually representing the “will of the people.”
Instead, when voter turnout rates are low, the election usually reflects the will of older, wealthier, whiter residents and neglects the needs of anyone younger than 50, people of color and lower-income folks. In fact, an October of 2016 Portland State University study found that residents age 65 and older are 15 times more likely than residents between the ages of 18 and 34 to vote in local elections.
Many people shrug this off and think maybe “those other people” are just too apathetic to vote, but there are many systemic forces in place that keep certain segments of our population from casting their vote.
This year, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study discovered that, in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, early registration deadlines were the single biggest contributor to low voter turnout. Other studies have shown dramatic increases in turnout among younger voters, low-income populations and people of color when states automatically register voters instead of implementing prohibitively early voter registration deadlines. In neighboring Oregon, for example, the number of non-white voters nearly doubled after that state implemented automatic registration and did away with early registration deadlines.
Then, of course, there are voter-suppression tactics common in states that haven’t yet gone to a vote-by-mail system like we have here in Washington and Oregon: closing polling places, making people wait all day in lines 10 blocks long to vote, implementing strict voter ID laws and limiting the voting rights of felons, which disproportionately affects black men, who are imprisoned at much higher rates than whites for the same exact crimes. All of these tactics disenfranchise poorer, younger people of color.
But, you may wonder, does it really matter if more people vote in yet another school board or city council election? We assure you that it does.
“Turnout (in local elections) is closely linked to the policies that governments pursue,” states Zoltan Hajnal, a University of California, San Diego political science professor and author of the book, America’s Uneven Democracy, in his 2015 Washington Post opinion piece.
When the voters are affluent, older whites, local government policies will cater to their needs over the often critical needs of people of color, young people, the homeless and working-class families.
Not only do local governments have influence over many of the things that make or break our everyday quality of life, from our schools, roads and sewer systems to our police officers, drinking water and parks, but many of the most groundbreaking federal programs we hold up as shining examples of democracy — our minimum-wage and child-labor laws, marriage equality and civil rights legislation, women’s suffrage and affordable health care —actually started on the local level.
So what can we do, other than fighting against voter-suppression tactics and lobbying our representatives to enact legislation that makes it easier for everyone to vote? Well, it seems pretty obvious, but we can remember to vote ourselves, and we can talk to our own family members about registering to vote and about actually (in Washington and Oregon) remembering to fill out their ballot and either mail it in or deposit it in a drop box.
Here are a few key dates to keep in mind:
Oct. 20: Ballots mailed to Clark County’s registered voters
Oct. 30: Last day for new Washington voters to register (in-person only)
Nov. 7: Election Day! All ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 7 or dropped into an official Clark County drop box by 8 p.m.
For more information, visit www.clark.wa.gov/elections.