'Quiet' local elections have big impact

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 1, 2011

By Damon Circosta
N.C. Center for Voter Education
RALEIGH — There is an old saying that still waters run deep. Often the most important thing is also the quietest.
This adage rings especially true in our politics. The turbulent waters of Washington might fill endless hours of babble for the cable news networks and spark loud and often nasty commercials imploring you to call your senator.
Meanwhile, throughout North Carolina we are about to elect local government officials who will have a tremendous impact on everything from where our kids go to school to the amount of time we sit in traffic and the value of our property. Local candidates might not get their faces on television and probably won’t become household names, but their election is every bit as important as what is going on in the nation’s capital.
Washington, D.C., might be a raging torrent of noise, but our own local elections are as tranquil as a pond on a quiet autumn morning. Make no mistake, campaigns are working hard to get us to pay attention. They are churning the waters anyway they can. Since these campaigns cannot afford to be on expensive media like television and radio, they rely on grassroots efforts, word of mouth and old-fashioned election tactics like mail and yard signs.
The power these elected officials will have is profound, yet voter participation in these races is just a trickle compared to the flood of presidential years. In 2009, fewer than 17 percent of registered voters showed up. Given the mandate we bestow on city council members, school board members and the like, perhaps we should look a little closer at who we are asking to serve in these roles.
What is their vision for our city? What experience and qualifications do they have?
Local politics aren’t as “in your face” as the national stuff, so it’s up to us to seek out information on the candidates and their platforms. There are civic groups hosting forums and online resources such as NCVoterGuide.org that provide candidate profiles and information on voting.
It seems counterintuitive that local elections would be harder to learn about, given that local elections are, by definition, close to home. But casting an informed ballot this fall requires us to dive a little deeper.
Voting in a local election might not seem like the most important thing we have to do in our busy lives, but if we don’t do it, we are essentially outsourcing critical decisions to the fraction of people who make their voice heard.
President Franklin Roosevelt once observed, “Nobody will ever deprive the American people the right to vote except the American people themselves — and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”
It’s doubtful the president was referring to city council and school board races when he made these remarks, but his words are even truer in the still waters of local elections.
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Damon Circosta is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization.