by Patreice A. Massey
On Tuesday, November 3, Americans will cast their vote in various elections that will drastically impact the quality of life for many years to come. Unfortunately, most people will not vote.
Voting is a constitutional right that many Americans simply choose not to exercise. As African Americans, we cannot afford to simply opt-out of the voting process. It’s statistically been proven that minorities stand to lose the most when we don’t vote.
Voter turnout is a serious issue in America.
According to political expert Dr. Larry J. Sabato, voter participation in presidential election years (e.g., 2008, 2012, 2016) is usually between 50 and 60 percent. However, the same report indicates that it is rare for more than 40 percent of Americans to vote in Congressional midterm election years (e.g., 2006, 2010, 2014). In-state and local elections in odd-numbered years, such as 2017, turnout can be lower than 10 percent.
The most fundamental difference between presidential and midterm cycles is that far fewer voters participate when there is no presidential race.
According to available data, the last time midterm turnout exceeded the previous presidential election was in 1838, when 70.8 percent of the eligible population voted versus the 56.5 percent who voted in the 1836 presidential election. Ever since, presidential turnout has always exceeded midterm turnout.
Although the federal government elections often get the most media attention, many of the matters that deeply affect Black people are decided at the local level. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other minorities at the hands of law enforcement has caused the country to take a real look at police reform. Over 80 percent of African Americans feel that police brutality is a serious issue. Protests have been popping up in almost every corner of the country and angry citizens are demanding change.
So how do we affect change? By voting!
The sheriffs that manage the police, the prosecutors that are responsible for challenging police misconduct, and the judges that hear the cases against the police are often elected or appointed by elected officials.
“The tragic murder of George Floyd continues to highlight for our community the inadequate justice system we face in America,” said Kamilia K. Landrum, executive director, Detroit Branch NAACP. “Our community must stay engaged in not only national matters but local issues as well. It matters who your mayor is because he or she will select your police chief. Local elections determine who is your prosecutor and who are your judges.”
What other issues are decided at the local level?
Education is a big one. Many Detroit parents have expressed frustration with the present state of the educational system. Schools are controlled by locally elected school boards.
If you want more convenient shopping and amenities, vote for it. The decision to allow both residential and commercial uses in a neighborhood is up to the local zoning board. Public transit is similarly governed by local authorities.
Voter participation matters to all Americans but it’s vital to African Americans for many reasons.
Political representation is also important. A recent study by Demos, a public policy organization that studies political inequalities, examined 438 municipalities that, demographically, would be expected to have at least one Black representative in the city government.
Of the 438 cities, they found that 175 had councils that underrepresented the African American population. Some of the cities had Black populations as high as 77 percent, yet not a single Black representative on the city council.
Now, the mere presence of Black elected officials won’t solve all of the issues present in the Black community but we know that not having political representation can create issues for communities of color.
Secondly, reports have shown that voter turnout is directly related to the distribution of resources. High voter turnout in local elections can influence the spending decisions of elected officials. What that means is that the more minorities that turn out to vote the more pressure gets applied to elected officials which can influence their spending on policies that are in line with their communities’ concerns.
Flint, Michigan, is an example of the importance of local and state elections. In 2014, reports from Flint indicated that the drinking water was unsafe for consumption, bathing or cooking.
Although no one has been ultimately held responsible, one thing is clear: Rick Snyder, a Republican governor, appointed an emergency manager for the city. That manager, a state employee, encouraged the mayor of Flint and other city officials to switch their water source. That fateful choice caused the people of Flint to live with contaminated water. That choice was not made by the federal government, but by local officials.
Long story short, cities and states are responsible for many of the government functions that directly impact our life — like public transit, clean energy, and affordable housing, and the outcomes of local races are sometimes decided by a few dozen votes.
So, if you truly want to change your community, cast your vote in local elections.