The power of local politics to shape national outcomes

A deep look at the changing political tides in suburban Oakland County, Michigan ends with this:

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Such a post-mortem would likely reveal that the party’s disinterest in holding onto the suburbs prevents the rise of new Pattersonian Republicans with their own identities separate from Trumpism and that this will have long-term historical consequences.

“There are dozens, if not hundreds of these local or regional-level political power brokers who shape the outcomes of how our cities and regions function in ways that just aren’t visible to most people,” says Delmont, the Dartmouth historian. “We spend so much time talking about who’s in the White House or even who’s in Congress. But it might be the L. Brooks Pattersons of the world who actually determine, like: Do we have affordable housing? Do we have segregated cities? Do we have police forces that are militarized? The people who actually operate the levers of power are probably much more positioned like a Brooks Patterson than a President Trump or President Biden.”

National politics are indeed often built on smaller units of government. While a lot of attention goes to presidential elections (and this article also focuses on Donald Trump and how this connects to local politics), there is a lot of work that happens at the Congressional, state, and other levels that undergird the larger outcomes. A candidate or political party is going to struggle without grassroots, lower-level support.

This reminds me of my blog post Thursday about addressing housing issues municipality by municipality. We often look at particular issues at a national level. How to provide affordable housing? How to explain the rise and fall of Donald Trump? There are multiple levels of analysis possible and needed. In this post and on Thursday, the reminder is that the local level matters. Does Oakland County and all the local machinations about county seats and redestricting determine who will be president or which political party will control Congress? No, but add up a lot of counties in important areas – particularly with suburban voters who can be swayed election to election – and this can start to matter.

Another side to this is how American residents approach local government. Particularly in suburban areas, they like the idea of local control. Yet, local voting can be very low with turnout around 15-20%. If elections for county boards in places like suburban Detroit matter for national outcomes, shouldn’t suburbanites pay more attention local elections?

Become suburban village president by 2 votes in the era of low local election turnout

Local election turnout in 2021 was low in the Chicago area. And the final results of the village president race in one Chicago suburb illustrates one of the consequences of low turnout:

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On Wednesday, Khokhar was claiming victory in the village president race after unofficial results show him with 475 votes and Ontiveroz with 473.

A two vote margin of victory would be interesting in many elections, local or otherwise. Yet, the vote totals here are striking. The top two candidates received less than 500 votes each, fewer than 1,000 total.

Here is more information on the community in question: the Village of Glendale Heights. According to 2019 Census estimates, the community has 33,617 residents. Nearly a quarter of the population is under the age of 18. I do not know how many people are registered to vote. But, let’s say that roughly half of the adults (18+ years old) are registered to vote. This means the winning candidate for village president had roughly 3.9% of possible voters elect him (475/12,000 possible voters). If we take local turnout to be in the 15-20% range, 16.9% of voters elected the President (475/2,800 possible voters). The numbers suggest that not a whole lot of local residents cast a vote for village president.

The village president of Glendale Heights may not be able to, on their own, to make much change. On the other hand, communities elect such leaders for a reason. And Americans tend to like suburban local government and the ability of local citizens to help determine their own fate. So why don’t they turn out in greater numbers to vote for such officials? The fate of many suburbs and communities could hinge on this question.

Turnout for local Chicago area elections low again: under 20% in counties

Americans have regular opportunities to vote in local elections and Chicago area voters did not turn out in large numbers in this week’s election:

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At the county level, voter turnout mostly hovered in the low to midteens, typical for many counties in consolidated elections. On the lower end, McHenry County reported a voter turnout of 9.5%, and Kankakee County topped voter turnouts across the counties at 18.6%. The pandemic didn’t have a significant effect on voter turnout, according to county clerks’ offices, with sufficient alternative options for people to vote early or by mail instead of in person.

In Cook, DuPage and Lake counties, turnout was 14.7%, 15.6% and 13.7%, respectively.

In Will County, southwest of Chicago, 15.8% of voters cast a ballot Tuesday. That’s nearly 3 percentage points higher than the previous consolidated election in 2019, which had a voter turnout of 13.2%, said Charles Pelkie, chief of staff for the Will County clerk’s office…

Finding information on local candidates presents a challenge for voters, Pelkie said, confined mostly to mailed flyers and local radio or television ads. In general elections, Will County voter turnout can reach about 80%, Pelkie said, but local races don’t “inspire” voters in the same way as presidential or gubernatorial races.

I think this explanation is correct in that residents have to do a lot of work to find out about all the candidates and races. See my post on this yesterday.

But, there are other factors at work as well. As noted in the article, national races drive up turnout. I wonder if national politics has now completely overshadowed local and state politics through the last few presidential cycles. Americans often say they like local government but many eyes are now only turned to Washington.

Big issues in communities can drive up turnout. County level data can obscure higher levels of turnout for intriguing races. Yet, even interesting or important local issues might be drowned out by larger politics or the overwhelming number of choices.

A little thought experiment. Imagine a local government unit decided elections are no longer necessary or will not take place as frequently. They could cite the amount of money that is needed to run elections. Lots of energy is expended from both winning and losing candidates. I would guess there would be local protest; how can you have local government without regular elections? Would it prompt people to vote more often in local elections?

Or, could eliminating government bodies or consolidating such bodies in Illinois help? Reduce the number of candidates to choose from. Limit the number of taxing bodies that local funds go to. Focus some of the positions on broader issues rather than details of particular institutions. Again, this could be viewed as being anti-democratic but the current system does not seem to interest many voters.

The difficulty of keeping up with all the choices in local elections

I voted in the local elections held yesterday. I study suburbs and am aware of the fondness many Americans have for smaller and/or local governments. And I find it difficult to know who or what I am voting for in local elections.

In class yesterday, I started by talking about the importance of local elections. If residents care about their community, they can run for local offices or serve on volunteer committees. Without all of this important work that can require high levels of commitment for limited compensation, things would not get done. Because turnout can be low in local elections, candidates can be elected with relatively few votes.

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In certain elections, certain parts of the ballots stand out. Perhaps it is a development issue. Perhaps it is a referendum on a local tax increase to fund local schools. Perhaps it is a particular race, like a heated mayoral election or a pandemic facing members of the school board.

Beyond those more noteworthy circumstances, there are many choices. Forest Preserve commissioners. County Board members. Local judges. Township leaders. And so on. Sometimes, I know something that helps me make a choice. I read local news that helpfully presents local candidates. I watch some local forums where candidates talk. I am aware of some of the local concerns. I may know someone or know of someone. But, I cannot keep track of everything. Hence, the popularity of just voting a slate or a party for particular positions. Or, a set of endorsements from local media. This is all on top of what might be happening at the state of federal level.

This problem might be exacerbated by the number of units of local government Illinois has. However, I suspect this is a larger issue among Americans. Having many choices for many offices may help lead to lower turnout. Only some people have the motivation and wherewithal to find all of the information needed on local issues and candidates. People are disconnected from local groups and institutions through which they might hear about candidates and issues.

Americans like the idea of local elections but it is hard to keep up with all of the local government activity.

Will turnout increase for upcoming local elections?

Election season is near in our area. Local elections often have really low turnoutsuburban municipal officials can be elected by just a small fraction of the population. But, perhaps this year will be different for a few reasons:

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  1. Local battles over COVID-19. With disagreement with and mistrust of national responses, local elections offer an opportunity to weight in on local responses. In particular, decisions about school reopenings are hot issues in elections for school boards. Add in debates about local businesses and eateries and voters might want to weigh in.
  2. Carryover from national elections and political polarization. Traditionally, local elections are non-partisan. Yet, the rancor at the higher levels could carry over. For example, I saw a large sign today looking to turn township positions blue. How much local officials might actually be able to do in regards to these debates is likely limited but it could help some voters and officials feel better.
  3. The activism of Black Lives Matter in suburbs plus responses to it could send more voters to the polls. How should communities address inequalities or disparities?
  4. Concern about municipal budgets. COVID-19 has created new problems and a number of communities already faced issues. How should money be spent and what could be done to bring in more revenue? The competition might just be heating up among suburbs to find government and tax revenues.

In other words, these are not typical local elections during good times. The local election turnout malaise might not be there. Since suburbanites tend to like local government, will they turn out this time when there are multiple pressing issues?

Chicago area voter turnout around 13-15%

The Daily Herald describes the low turnout in municipal elections in the Chicago area a week ago.

Only 13 percent of the suburb’s registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, the lowest rate for any election since at least 2006…

With hundreds of races in each county, some drew more voters than others. The Hinsdale High School District 86 tax hike question in DuPage County brought more than 40 percent of the district’s voters to the ballot box, with the looming threat of massive extracurricular cuts if the request didn’t pass. It did.

But scores of other races had less than 5 percent turnout, according to vote totals available on some election websites, mainly because they weren’t contested…

The growth in actual voters is little comfort to political scientists, local politicians and suburban election officials, who worry low voter turnout shows a dangerous level of apathy by the electorate.

While the article tries to bring out the positive news – there are more registered voters compared to the last set of municipal elections and some races had higher turnout races – it is hard to sugarcoat these figures. The Chicago suburb in which I live had low turnout for the first mayoral race in years. These local elections can have a significant impact as local leaders react to external pressures as well as have internal discussions. Not every local official makes significant changes and many local officials may run to make small improvements and preserve the nature of their community. At the same time, many communities have key moments in their past to which they could point to as sending the community down a different route and altering the community’s character.

Again, if Americans claim to like local government and local control in suburban settings, why do they not vote in larger numbers for the officials who will help guide their communities and local governments?