Kevin Sweeny: Local elections are the ones that affect your life the most

Polls show only 7 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and frankly, most of us want to know what is wrong with those 7 percent.  However, as dysfunctional as Washington can be, most governments in America function just fine because they are led by caring citizens who are motivated not by television appearances but by a desire to make their communities better.

Few nations vote more frequently than America. There are nearly 89,004 local governments in the United States, and they collect a quarter of U.S. revenue and employ almost 14 million people.

Most of these governments are overseen by an elected body and most Americans can’t name many local officials beyond their mayor.

Last Friday marked the last day Floridians wanting to run for office at the state and local level could qualify to seek office.

While local governments play a fundamental role in our democracy, only the most active advocates understand how responsive local politicians can be to their needs. Local government has an enormous impact on the lives of residents and local officials at least partly control schools, water, police, fire, roads, waste, health and sewage.

While people elected on the state and federal level have broad powers, local officials have a direct influence on the quality of life. While Congress might get all the attention, it is the city council member who will make sure the potholes get filled.

Local politicians also control spending. They make decisions that have a direct effect on property values, taxes, crime and schools. Indeed, local officials are the people who do the most to lure new businesses to come to town. While state government has its role to play, local elected officials have immense power to influence federal spending of programs important to local communities — one can argue their bearing on communities is unmatched.

While state government has its role to play, local officials have immense power to influence federal spending on programs important to their communities.

While most local elections are generally non-partisan popularity contests, the growing use of sophisticated polling data allows officials to better match the power of local government with the needs of the electorate. Moreover, we can now see how an active local citizenry can have a direct determination on local policy.

While it has become cliché to remind voters elections matter, the consequences of local elections are what may truly matter most. Political scientists are often quick to point out that no matter which metric you use, the United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any democracy in the world. Local elections in the United States can see turnouts in the single digits.

Few things restore your faith in politics more than sitting down with people who are driven to serve their city and their fellow citizens. Most people who run for office are not looking for an elevator to higher office. They run because of a calling to serve their neighbors.

While it may not drive newspaper sales, web traffic or site views, maybe it is time to pay more attention to those who govern the silent monster — local politics.

Kevin Sweeny created and elucidated his first poll for the ’76 presidential election and has been involved in politics (and other things) ever since. He lives on the beach on the east coast with his alluring wife and beleaguered cat. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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