Hours-long lines at voting stations and broken or missing voting machines contributed to Georgia’s primary election being described as a “meltdown.” Some voters in the battleground state gave up and left before getting the chance to cast their ballot, raising concerns that these problems could disenfranchise voters at a time when it is more important than ever to make sure that everyone has equal opportunity to vote.
“It is emblematic of the deep systemic issues we have here in Georgia,” Stacey Abrams, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and founder of Fair Fight 2020, told The New York Times. “One of the reasons we are so insistent upon better operations is that you can have good laws, but if you have incompetent management and malfeasance, voters get hurt…”
But questions of voter turnout on the local level have more serious consequences than most people imagine. There are concerns that mismanagement could result in voter suppression and a count that does not accurately represent the voter base. Areas of Georgia with predominantly Black populations reportedly experienced some of the worst problems during the primary. Many questions are being asked about voter suppression, low turnout, and widespread mail-in ballots to avoid spreading COVID-19.
Voter turnout in the United States, in general, is low — and because of that, local elections tend to suffer most. In the 2016 presidential election, about 56% of the voting-age population cast a ballot. And if you think presidential election participation is low, wait until you see the numbers for local elections. Nationwide, only 27% of eligible voters participated in local elections, reports the NYT. Studies show that voter turnout for local elections is higher if they coincide with a larger election cycle, known as on-cycle elections. Two times higher on average, in fact.
In 2016, Baltimore moved to on-cycle elections and voter turnout went from 13% in the last local election to 60%. San Diego, which already holds on-cycle city elections, had a 76% turnout in November 2016. In 2013, San Diego had to hold an off-cycle mayoral election, and participation was just 35%.
People are making calls for political change on local and national levels. Currently, the most talked about — and protested — issues are police violence and racism. Protestors are questioning city law enforcement budgets, state-level policies that protect offending officers, and whether enough money is spent on community-oriented social services. So much of this is decided at a local level. These changes come from electing the right officials in city and state offices.
“If you want to feel the immediate impact of your vote in a direct and personal way, local elections are the way to do it,” Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something told Refinery29. “Those are the people who affect our quality of life.”
When voter participation is high, the likelihood of skewed outcomes declines. The more voters participate in local elections, the more policies can become responsive to the needs of the public. State and local governments control how a lot of money is spent. In 2018, local governments controlled a budget of almost $2 trillion. That is roughly the same amount as the entire CARES Act.
While it might seem small compared to federal budgets, it can be used to enact change on a much more immediate level. “We know that voting is a habit. The more times you do the habit, the strong it gets,” says Litman. “People who vote in this election are the people who likely voted in the last election and will likely vote in the next election.”
This year, 29 of the U.S.’s largest cities are holding mayoral elections. Overall, 34 states will hold local elections this year. Cities influence states and states influence the nation. It is more important than ever to vote locally because change happens at every level.