The primary for Chicago mayor concluded yesterday and one of the leading stories is the low turnout among the electorate.
There are multiple ways to interpret this data and I would guess some would suggest Chicagoans are not interested in affecting their own fate or argue fourteen mayoral candidates was simply too many. But, here is what I would not want to get lost in the shuffle: voter turnout is low in many American local elections. This is true in some of the biggest cities as well as in small towns and suburbs. And this is in a country that claims to like local government and the ability of residents and community members to be closer to elected officials. While the federal government is large and far away, municipal officials have to address local issues and connect with the needs of their neighbors.
Given the larger decline in participation in civic activity in the United States plus lower confidence in institutions and lower levels of trust, perhaps low voter turnout is not surprising. Yet, one way to counter polarization, divides, and inaction would be for community members and neighbors to participate more in local politics where the distance between themselves and elected and appointed officials is much lower. Of course, such activity is not a guarantee of good outcomes. For example, people can be protectionist at the local level (see examples of NIMBY across locales here, here, and here) just as well as at the national level. At the same time, there are enough stories out there where cities, suburbs, and small towns still do come together to tackle important issues they face. Think of Elwood, Illinois which tried a development plan to bring in jobs and revenue that did not turn out as they had planned.
If local government is a feature of civic life many Americans like, higher rates of participation in voting and serving could help ensure its long term viability.