The Case for Local Civic Participation
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
It is easy to empathize with the idea that “your vote doesn't matter” in the era of the 24 hour news cycle. Focused exclusively on national and sensational issues, the locus point of the American consciousness rests on Washington DC and events of national significance where an individual voice seems simply drowned out among the voices of 328 million citizens and the digital megaphones that surround us in the age of information.
Amidst this fixation on national events supported by the consolidation of curated media access at a national level, we have become blinded to the civic impacts and duties we have in our democratic system at a local level: a level in which the issues fueling the collective anger and chaos of the events of 2020 must be solved at. This phenomenon of “inattentive blindness” to our ability to impact our communities through our democratic system is caused by our focused attention on broader issues through our media atmosphere and becomes a primary contributor to the ennui of our “vote doesn’t matter” in our citizen identity. This situation in our civic lives recalls the video in which individuals are asked to count people in a video and in doing so are generally unaware of a gorilla walking through the scene.
In the last 2 decades the percentage of the voting age population voting in Washington State has not surpassed 63% with a notable low of 39.5% in the 2014 midterm election and only 60.52% in 2016 courtesy of the WA Secretary of State website. A rather dismal show of participation. In Spokane County during the 2016 election only 230k votes, less than half of Spokane County’s 520k population, were cast in national races. Looking down the ballot, few state or municipal positions achieve proportions as high as 60%.
The irony being that though the national races garner the vast majority of interest and media coverage, the results of local races have the highest impact on the lives of citizens. As widespread angst and frustration at our civil and judicial systems sweeps the nation and we evaluate the causes and the responses we must also recall that we do have the capability to make an impact within our communities through the very democratic system we have become disillusioned with.
In Washington State and the City of Spokane, all our Superior Court, District Court and Municipal Court judges are elected. This means that the decisions and power of the distribution of justice is subject and influenced by the interests and choices of the voting population. The county wide prosecuting attorney is elected and ran unopposed in 2018. We vote for our sheriff who determines the distribution of resources and policies of enforcement within our law enforcement departments and the mayor appoints the city’s chief of police.
At the very basic level, the positions on the ballot which often see the lowest voter turnout have the highest capacity for impact within the community. This trend continues up the ballot as positions such as State Supreme Court Justices, Attorney General and the Governor himself wield power and responsibilities immensely disproportionate to the levels of public interest and understanding of what they can do. While interest in our federal elected officials dominates the spotlight, the effects of our locally elected public servants impacts our lives on a daily basis and furthermore, our public servants from our City Councilmen, our Judges and our Mayor are accessible at the municipal level in ways our federal representatives never will be.
Even though few individuals will have the feeling that they will be casting the deciding vote in an election, voting itself is a form of informative participation that elected officials need in order to understand the desires and priorities of their communities. A friend of mine who worked for the Dave Wilson campaign in 2018 once told me that voting is not just to decide a candidate but to tell future candidates what platform and issues are important so that candidates can craft a relevant and electable platform to represent their constituents. Voting for a candidate whether they be a major party or 3rd party provides necessary data to candidates and crafters of policy to respond to the needs and demands of their constituents and to abdicate from the process risks producing an ineffective and skewed perception of what a community desires and will accept.
The value of citizenship has sat dormant in the American consciousness and even derided as we reflect on our past and our roots. As a value however, it is integral to any movement of progress as it requires individuals to think beyond their own needs and work towards a framework of betterment and sustainment in the future. As someone who has been involved in volunteer work and civil engagement in Spokane throughout the last decade I can say that local civic engagement is possible and bears fruit. My experiences in Spokane have found officials to be accessible and progress to be possible, overcoming the discouragement from powerlessness of affecting change at the national level. The perspective that “Many people are discouraged about America. But the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see” as expressed in James Fallows 2016 Atlantic Article “How America is Putting Itself Back Together” and his and his wife Deb Fallow’s “Our Towns” project rings true and shows that local engagement leads to local progress and pride. We have already evidenced this trend in our own community through the grassroots rise of Terrain, the work of local non-profits and countless others who sacrifice their time and energy to create an environment for every citizen.
I am reminded in this time of uncertainty of the quote by President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Our country is not the government or the inertia which we swear fealty to but to the human beings who make them up and for whom they serve in the present and in the future. I encourage those of us in our community to engage actively in the democratic experiment of the American system and to make our voice heard through protest, education and actions, especially those of voting and participating in civil society at the community level for this is the level in which actual and actionable change can and will occur.
Image: Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David
How America Is Putting Itself Back Together - The Atlantic
2016 Spokane General Election Results - Secretary of State
Washington State Voter Participation Statistics by Year - Secretary of State