Why Local Elections Impact National Politics

Nov. 7 is Election Day, but because it’s not a presidential election year, there’s a good chance you hadn’t heard that. And because 2017 is an odd-numbered year, most states don’t have national offices up for grabs.

That makes for a pretty chill campaign season.

Local Elections rewire pbsSeveral states have open races for state office, and cities and counties across the U.S. are holding elections for local offices—think mayor, city council and school board.

Many people think local politics isn’t very interesting, but history demonstrates that they do matter. The people we elect to local offices are often the people who most directly impact our lives.

Laboratories of democracy

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called states “laboratories” because they could essentially experiment with government, trying new ideas and programs at the state level and helping determine if an idea is a good one.

Much of our state and national government today began as state reforms a century ago. During the Progressive Era at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, states experimented with “direct democracy,” implementing the initiative, referendum, recall and direct primary. All of these reforms took power from political machines and gave them to the people.

Another more recent example: The health care program implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts became a blueprint of sorts of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Some of these experiments, like women’s suffrage and the direct election of U.S. Senators, were so good they were added to the U.S. Constitution. And some of those ideas were Prohibition. But that’s the point. We pick the people who make those decisions.

Leading in times of crisis

Unless you live in New Jersey or Virginia, you don’t have governors or state legislators to vote for this year. There are, however, elections for mayor, city council and all sorts of other offices in localities across the country.

Local officials are usually the first to make critical decisions during times of national crisis crisis. For example, Rudy Giuliani’s leadership during the 9/11 attacks earned praise from around the world.

If you don’t live in a large metropolitan area, you might be under the impression that nothing major could happen where you are.

But consider the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Flint residents might have thought the same thing before 2014. But they spent the next year listening to former Mayor Dayne Walling tell them the water was just fine. In the face of the crisis, he lost his re-election bid.

The moral of the story: Want good problem-solving where you live? Elect good local leaders.

Local leaders, widespread impact

Our local officials can also dramatically impact national politics.

local election rewire pbsIn 1960, activists Diane Nash, John Lewis and others led a sit-in campaign designed to force Nashville, Tennessee, businesses to integrate their lunch counters. Under fire from all sides, Mayor Ben West admitted that he did not believe it was morally right to discriminate on the basis of race. Diane Nash considered West’s personal stand the “turning point” of the campaign, and by the end of the year, the city’s lunch counters were desegregated.

In 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city’s clerks to begin signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples, challenging California state law at the time. Although the California Supreme Court overturned Newsom’s order, Newsom helped bring national attention to marriage equality, eventually culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country in 2015.

Given the decentralized nature of today’s protest movements, good local leaders are critical. Will tensions cool or will they reach a boiling point? Will a local issue become national news? It is largely the response of local officials that determines the answer to those questions.

Upholding the law

Local officials are also responsible for carrying out state and national decisions.

Most people in the United States know that Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in public schools. Far fewer know the battle over school segregation did not end there. The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that school districts desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Emboldened segregationists used that wording to drag their feet until the frustrated Court ordered immediate integration years later.

Two decades before, the school board in Minersville, Pennsylvania, expelled two Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to salute the American flag due to their religious beliefs. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the school board violated their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, that vindication came eight years after the students were expelled.

The First and Fourteenth Amendments were eventually upheld in both instances. The wrongs done in between, however, were due to decisions made by local elected officials.

Vote Nov. 7

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill liked to say that “all politics is local.” Judging by how many local decisions have impacted the entire country, the same can probably be said of history.

Want change? Vote in your local elections. The process of change is slow and arduous, but it almost always begins at the local level.

Nov. 7 is Election Day. If you have something to say, use your ballot to make your voice heard.

Jacob Hillesheim

Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator who has taught courses in American history, world history, military history, government and criminal justice and law. He holds master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history. He has never—never—said “no” to ice cream.