“CONSTITUTING AMERICA” SERIES ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Every year elections are held in the United States.
Federal and state elections every other year (except a few states who are truly “off-year” outside of the two-year cycle). Local elections, county and municipal, are held somewhere every year.
There are approximately 88,000 local governments, districts, and commissions containing over 500,000 elected officials.
Many local offices are nonpartisan, meaning not party affiliation. School Boards and small cities and towns assume local functions are not truly partisan. Is there a Republican or Democrat way of collecting trash or plowing snow?
Local government is designed to be more intimately related to the people it serves. Ironically, few Americans understand its functions, and fewer know their local officials.
This is unfortunate, as local government is, in many ways, far more important than national and statewide offices. Local laws and their enforcement can affect property values, quality of education, quality of water, and determine life or death when managing first responders.
This dichotomy of importance and ignorance creates numerous challenges and opportunities.
On the one hand there is less interest in running for these offices. In smaller towns and cities, of importance and as many as 79 percent of local elections are uncontested. There is also less interest in voting for these offices. Stand alone local races, held in off-years, may experience voter turnouts of less than 20 percent. Local elections held during regular cycles, usually county and school boards, may garner 30-40 percent less votes than for the high-profile state and federal offices.
On the other hand, smaller voter turnout means a dedicated group of activists can elect a candidate as change agent. It also means a low thresh hold for a first-time candidate entering a local race.
21st Century campaigns have become extremely expensive.
In 2014, the average winning campaign for the U.S. Senate campaign spent $10.6 million. In 2018, incumbent U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) spent $33.5 million in her losing re-election campaign. In 2018, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) spent $25 million to lose his re-election, while Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) spent $68 million to defeat him.
Campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives can also be very expensive. Congressman Alex Mooney (R-WV) spent $1.8 million for winning his 2018 re-election.
These campaign finance numbers do not include the millions spent by “independent” organizations to promote or oppose candidates through direct mail and professionally produced radio and television advertisements.
Compare this with county-level campaigns where $5,000-$20,000 may be all that is required for victory. Winning small town and School Board campaigns may only require a just few hundred dollars.
“Down Ballot” offices are ideal for average citizens to run for office for the most idealistic of reasons – to help their community. Many who run for these positions do not desire political careers. They are motivated by seeing something that needs to be done and answer the call to do it.
Another aspect of local “down ballot” campaigns is that they usually transcend partisanship. This is certainly the case for officially nonpartisan offices. Even partisan local campaigns will see bipartisan cooperation when community values, honesty in government, and civic reform is at stake. There are countless examples of activists who may be deeply divided on national issues joining forces to “drain the swamp” of county courthouse insiders.
Successful “Down Ballot” campaigns may include a few yard signs, but rarely include major advertising. Social media, especially Facebook pages and groups, have been the winning edge for many of these first timers. Some create their own Facebook and Youtube videos to introduce themselves or highlight issues.
The intimacy of local campaigns also allows for neighbors to help neighbors. “Meet and Greets” in private homes and door-to-door face-to-face interactions are the purest form of grassroots campaigning. Money is not as important. One local candidate, who was revered for her charity work, won by a landslide despite being outspent 21-1.
This lack of interest in running and voting has, by design or chance, levelled the field for average citizens to make a difference. Either as a candidate or as a supporter/voter of that candidate, “down ballot” offices provide a way for caring members of the local community to get involved and contribute to the greater good.
What could be more American than that?