On August 18, sf.citi discussed the importance of voting down ballot at Local Matters: Understanding the Power of Local Elections. We heard from two experts in the field: Eitan Hersh, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and author of Hacking the Electorate and Politics Is for Power, and A’shanti Gholar, President of Emerge.
Watch our conversation about the importance of voting in local elections with Eitan Hersh of Tufts University and A’shanti Gholar of Emerge.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE VOTE IN LOCAL ELECTIONS?
Wasting no time in tackling the hard questions, sf.citi Executive Director Jennifer Stojkovic began the conversation by asking why people don’t vote in local elections. According to Eitan Hersh of Tufts University, as many as 80 to 90 percent of eligible voters in the United States don’t vote in local elections. And while the reasons vary, he described three main factors that contribute to low voter turnout in local elections.
- Voters only follow national news. This holds especially true for educated voters, said Hersh. In fact, the most educated voters in the United States are least likely to follow local news, opting instead for national news sources like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. It also means that those who are well informed about national politics and issues have little understanding of what is happening in their local communities. And they’ll vote accordingly…by not voting.
- Voters suffer from cognitive dissonance. “Part of it comes from an inability to channel your big political values into concrete issues,” elaborated Hersh. In the 2020 Massachusetts Presidential Primary, for example, almost half of the people who voted for Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also voted for Republican Governor Charlie Baker who promised not to raise the state’s gas tax.
- Voters find comfort in political polarization, which doesn’t always exist at the local level. Local issues often pit people with similar national profiles or party affiliations against one another. And in order to move local issues forward, voters find that they can’t treat the opposition like the enemy, says Hersh. In other words, engaging in local politics requires voters to have some level of empathy for their neighbors—even when they disagree with them. It loses the sport and comfort of national partisanship.
WHAT’S DEMOCRATIC VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE KAMALA HARRIS GOT TO DO WITH LOCAL ELECTIONS?
Hosted on the second night of the 2020 Democratic Convention, Local Matters had some timely connections to the freshly picked Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Kamala Harris. President of Emerge, A’shanti Gholar, explained that the California Senator was, in many ways, the inspiration behind Emerge. In 2002—the year Emerge was established—Harris was running for District Attorney in San Francisco. Many of Emerge’s founders helped out with her race (which she won) and decided, “We want to see more women like Kamala in office.”
What you’re seeing is a movement. We’re seeing women owning their political power, using their political power, and when they have political power, uplifting other women with them. This is what I’m excited about with Senator Harris being on the ticket. Win or lose, we know more women will be galvanized to run.
—A’shanti Gholar, President, Emerge
Since its founding, Emerge has trained and recruited over 4,000 Democratic women to run for office. The organization now operates in 27 states and has nearly 800 alumni currently serving at all levels of political office, including Lieutenant Governor of California Eleni Kounalakis, Mayor of Oakland Libby Schaaf, and Governor of Guam Lou Leon Guerrero.
DO LOCAL ELECTIONS REALLY MATTER?
Yes! Our speakers were unanimous about the importance of voting in local elections.
A’shanti Gholar of Emerge has observed that many Democratic leaders are looking to learn from state and city elected officials because they are able to make great change and their power can “ripple up.” Case in point has been the exemplary COVID-19 response championed by local leaders, including San Francisco’s very own Mayor London Breed. Gholar shared the stories of several other local leaders and Emerge alumni who have been at the forefront of mitigating the coronavirus’ impact on our communities.
When shelter in place policies took hold in Massachusetts, Emerge alum and Suffolk County District Attorney, Rachael Rollins, led efforts to expand services and funding for victims of domestic violence. Others quickly followed suit across the country.
Danica Roem is also an Emerge alum who became the first openly transgender state legislator in the country representing the 13th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, she teamed up with Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger to fight a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule requiring children to be present with their families to receive school meals. The USDA has since relaxed the regulation, allowing parents and guardians to pick up meals in their children’s stead.
Eitan Hersh of Tufts University, meanwhile, emphasized that local elections represent a “huge opportunity for people who care about politics to multiply the power of their vote.” For the reasons mentioned above, voters at the local level are, to a large extent, blank slates. They can be more easily swayed to vote in a certain way on local issues, especially by people they trust, such as their friends and neighbors.
HOW CAN YOU BECOME MORE THAN A POLITICAL HOBBYIST?
The answer is simple: vote local and vote all the way down the ballot. If you live in San Francisco, make sure you are registered to vote in San Francisco.
As for keeping up with local issues and ballot measures, sf.citi’s got you covered. Stay tuned for our November 2020 voter guide and candidate questionnaire. We’ll help you make sense of all 13 San Francisco ballot measures and provide a quick overview of the San Francisco Supervisor candidates competing for a spot in City Hall.