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Why Voting Once Every 4 Years Isn't Enough

by Kate Westlund
May 3, 2018 | Our Future

No matter when you last cast a ballot (or even if you just recently became eligible to vote) another election is right around the corner. Although most of the attention—and voter turnout—tends to be on presidential elections, local politics are just as, if not more, important.

If you think the only elections that matter happen every four years, guess again. Sure, the big guy at the top has a lot of power, but that power is far from absolute. A cornerstone of U.S. democracy is its system of checks and balances, ensuring no one person or group has too much power.

Political candidate speaking in front of a small audience Voting pbs rewire
Learning more about candidates for local office is a productive and accessible way to get involved in politics.

“The president is like the quarterback of a football team—he takes a disproportionate amount of credit when things go well, and a disproportionate amount of blame when things do not go well, but there are a lot of other actors,” said Matt Lindstrom, professor of political science and director of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

Elections allow voters to take the pulse of the existing government and, if necessary, prescribe a change.

Look and act locally

“Local officials have so much influence on what we quite literally see, smell and hear every day,” Lindstrom said. “And if you think about people’s daily experiences—mobility, health, education, taxes—those are primarily locally decided and locally funded issues.”

Among other hot issues being discussed locally around the country:

  • Debt-free college education
  • Redrawing of congressional districts
  • Cannabis reform
  • Criminal justice reform
Man holding
Did you move recently? Make sure you’re registered to vote in your new city.

(In other words, no matter how apolitical or apathetic you are, local policy will affect you and your neighbors.)

What's more, according to Lindstrom, “one of the unique aspects of the United States is that we have a federal system with a lot of dependence on individual states."

"State and local officials implement nationally decided public policy, as well," he said. "Or on the flipside, they’re resisting national public policies, a recent example being the case of sanctuary cities.”

What can you do?

With all of this on the line, what can you do? Fortunately, it's easier to get involved than you might think.

  • The most basic thing you can do is register to vote (or update your voter registration if you've moved, changed your name or changed political parties since the last election), and then go vote! Lindstrom pointed out that, from a purely mathematical standpoint, the more local the election, the more your vote counts, which is cool to think about.
  • If you're turned off by the partisanship in today's politics, you can identify an issue or two that you care most about, do a little research, and vote for the candidate or candidates who most closely align with your views.
  • Firmly rooted in a political party? You can help shape the party and its agenda by getting involved in the endorsement process by way of caucusing or voting in a primary. (A great place to start if you’re brand new is with the office of your secretary of state.)
  • If you want to step up your civic engagement beyond voting, an easy way is to donate—either your time, your money, or both—to a party, a candidate or a political activism group. Political campaigns are generally lean operations and are always happy to have the help, whether it comes in the form of a small one-time financial contribution or a weekend out door knocking.
  • Speak your mind at city council meetings. Local governing bodies always leave time on the agenda for citizens to talk about stuff the council is deliberating about that day, as well as things that aren't on the agenda.

There are lots of ways (and reasons) to stay involved beyond presidential elections.

“It’s important to get off social media and show up in the council rooms, at the party conventions, and at the ballot box,” Lindstrom said.

So take a break from Twitter, study up on the issues and go out and make your voice heard.

    Kate Westlund
    Kate Westlund is a Colorado native who’s enthusiastically made St. Paul her home. She’s often found holding her knitting, chasing a bus, and sometimes even both. Depending on the season, she likes to either hunker down in her home or explore her neighborhood on foot. You can find her online as @khwestlund on Twitter and Instagram.
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