Sadly, I must preface this post by admitting that I could do better myself. As I sit here typing, I have another window open on my laptop, trying to complete my own civic education on the issues facing a New York City voter in today’s election. It would be easy for me to skip voting today, as in this so-called off-year election, the only races occurring in my district are judicial, not legislative. Most of the candidates are running unopposed. It would be easy for me to convince myself that my vote today doesn’t matter much, thus providing myself cover to shirk my civic duty. After all I have this blog post to finish, on top of my normal workload and home obligations. I threw a Halloween party this weekend, and my apartment still isn’t as clean as I’d like it to be. My aging father needs my attention after work this evening. I am sure millions of Americans face similar dilemmas. A couple judicial elections just don’t seem to matter enough to my life, relative to the myriad other things I MUST do today. If it were a Senator, Governor or President, sure, but local judges?
Unfortunately, these elections matter, only all too much. There is an old adage that all politics is local, and it still rings true today. Yet local participation is at a near all-time low particularly among younger citizens. If we want a United States that reflects our values, we really need to start engaging in our communities, and voting at the local and primary levels (not to mention showing up for jury duty, but that is another blog post entirely). And by we, I mean Americans aged thirty-five and under. But truly, all sectors of American society are abysmal when it comes to voter turnout percentages, particularly in non-Presidential years. Primary election turnouts are even worse, maddening, because in our current system, they are all the more important.
Millennials are by-and-large the age group most disaffected with the current machinery of our democratic system, longing for fundamental change across all areas of the political spectrum. The success of the outsider-style presidential campaigns of both Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right are a testament to that sentiment, and yet I would argue, sadly, also a symptom of it. These same fellow Millennials who are almost completely civically disengaged at the local level, truly believe the election of a President who shares their outward frustration at the behemoth that is our federal and state level infrastructure will fix all that ails the United States of America? SMH. I really wish they would take a look at the evidence to the contrary piling up at the feet of our frustrated former standard bearer for hope and change, President Obama. We live in a federalist nation—state and local governments here have more power than arguably any other nation in the world. As much as we elected a left-leaning Democrat to the office of President in 2008 and again in 2012 (and are poised to do so again in 2016 if polls hold), that same time period has seen the state level governments, as well as the federal legislative and judicial branches, consolidate into a deeper, further-right-leaning red.
Currently the largest group of states, twenty four, sit under undivided Republican “trifecta” control, and seven under Democratic, with complete unified government at the state level solidifying as the dominant and continuing trend. Long-term, unchanging, undivided state-level government is not what we should be aiming for if we want progress or transparency—we certainly tended throughout our history to avoid it as a nation at the federal level for long periods of time, and our Founders were rightly suspicious of factions. Yet, partisan gerrymandering in election district drawing stemming out of the 2000 and 2010 censuses has allowed for even more partisan solidification, and the party that controls each state’s legislature after the 2020 census will have the power to do (or undo) even more damage to competition and compromise at the state and federal Congressional level. Polarization has resulted in many state level Representatives not being accountable to their own constituents, because the only election that actually matters is their party primary. And because many state primaries are closed to registered Independent voters, as well as the tendency of younger and less civically engaged voters to pass on primary participation outright, primaries are often won by the candidate willing to kowtow to corporate or moneyed interests, thus creating even less incentive for change and compromise to do the people’s work later.
And, of course, many of the judges who will rule on whether or not those gerrymandered districting plans pass state constitutional muster; or whether or not your state must expand Medicaid under Obamacare; or whether your state can defund women’s health and legislate abortion clinics out of existence; or if your state’s public accommodations law protects LGBTQ citizens; or decide if we can effectively re-create debtor’s prisons with their rulings; or of course, decide whether your county and state should make it harder or easier to exercise one’s constitutional right to vote, are up for election today. Still think you’re too busy to vote? Just in case, I’d like to point out the District Attorneys are also elected. The response by the D.A. in Baltimore, MD, versus those in Ferguson, MO, and Staten Island, NY are high profile examples of the major differences the approach of the prosecutor a given city elects (or doesn’t elect when they don’t show up to vote) makes in relation to police-related deaths of unarmed citizens. The school board members who will decide which textbooks your child uses, and the county clerks who will (or won’t) issue your marriage license are generally elected—yes, including Kim Davis in Kentucky. That she was duly elected by only those Kentuckians who showed up to vote that day is why Davis cannot be fired for not doing her job; she must be impeached, charged with misconduct or resign her office, instead.
The best way to change anything is from within, and Millennials cannot continue to opt out of local politics if they want the future for the America they desire to occur. POTUS and the executive branch can only do so much—our Founders designed three co-equal branches of government, and a federalist system of checks and balances on purpose, and they presumed an educated and engaged electorate when they did so. We are statistically the most educated generation in American history, and clearly generalized malaise and apathy is not working for us—why aren’t we using our education and our youth to engage IN our nation and help drive policy to fix the future for ourselves? More, for most of us (who are not white, male, AND property owners), our voting rights were hard-earned and long fought for well subsequent to 1791. Why would we cede them to little more than self-justifying apathy and rationalized laziness now?
Expansion of knowledge and civic participation is crucial to protection of our civil rights—and those of our fellow citizenry. If we want it to be easier to vote, or even compulsory, such as it is in Australia, or campaigns to be shorter, such as in England, we need to get out, organize our communities, recruit and vote for candidates who agree with us. And we need to do it both early and often. Otherwise we truly forfeit our right to [non-hypocritically] complain. Why aren’t you on the way to your polling place yet? If you don’t know where it is, you can look it up here, or here. Not sure if your registration is up to date? You can check here. Not registered? Fix it before your state’s 2016 primary—no matter how hard they make it for you. If you don’t, it will only get harder for you, and for many other Americans.
There is so much more I could say on this most seminal issue to our democracy, but, I think you get my point…and, well, I have to go vote.