What My Fight for Voting Rights Can Teach Us About Our Elections System

Georgia’s 6th Congressional District Special Election brought national attention back to electoral politics, even if for a brief moment. On April 18th, Election Protection — led by the Lawyers Committee — received hundreds of calls from Georgia residents on the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline. As a hotline volunteer, I can tell you firsthand that nearly every caller was a voter who had little to no knowledge about which Congressional District they lived in and whether they were even eligible to vote in the 6th Congressional District election. Very few, if any at all, asked about the 17 other state and local races occurring that same day.

Given the amount of media coverage on the Special Election, the lack of voter knowledge about the local elections in Georgia raises questions about the differences in attention given to elections for all levels of government. What are the consequences of these differences?

This lack of awareness on local races is illustrated by my interaction with one Georgia voter. On Election Day, the individual called asking why he could not vote in the 6th Congressional District. He went to the polls thinking he was eligible to vote for a new Congressional member– which he was not — but inadvertently learned there were municipal elections. The caller knew about the 6th Congressional Election, but was completely unaware of his local election. Similarly, most hotline callers were unaware of other local elections occurring in their area. In fact, many voters were surprised there were other races occurring in Georgia — they had only heard about the 6th Congressional race.

Because our elections system is so diffused — that is separated between national, state, and local — part of the challenge to increasing voter awareness of each election is that it can be hard to find information about local elections. For example, Election Protection worked with Georgia state officials to find the full list of local and state elections occurring that day. This information was not easily accessible. Voters tend to get more information about national elections, making them more aware and attentive to national politics while there are many hurdles in finding information about local races.

My experience working the Election Protection hotline made me wonder how much voters know about and engage in local elections. What I found was that voters engage more in national races. Since 2000, voter turnout rates for American presidential elections have hovered between 55 to 62 percent[i]. For the Georgia special election, voter turnout was about 43 percent[ii], a number higher than most special elections. In comparison, municipal elections have average voter turnout rates around 20 percent [iii] in off-year cycles. During presidential election years, local elections tend to get buried behind more prominent races. During off-year cycles, local elections receive little attention and have low voter turnout. Either ways, municipal elections tend to get the short end of the stick.

In Georgia, the 6th Congressional District race took up all of the election coverage. This coverage gave limited attention to the Georgia municipal and county elections in Monroe County, Waynesboro, South Fulton, and Roswell. For many voters who called our hotline, their local elections took a back seat to the 6th Congressional District Election. While voters were energized to take part in this $20 million federal election[iv], very few seemed aware of the local races. This is problematic because political engagement at the local level is just as important — if not more important — than state and federal races.

Local government has the biggest day-to-day impact on citizens’ lives. Whether it be to install sidewalks in an aging neighborhood lacking sidewalks or to invest in a neighborhood’s public transportation infrastructure, local government is the most direct route for citizens to advocate for change in their communities. City councilmembers and mayors provide direction for city investments through bond programs that guide infrastructure, business, and neighborhood development. Even so, only a small fraction of voters are influencing who controls these consequential positions of power.

The Georgia Special Election can be used as a lesson on the importance of local government and the dangers of focusing too much on federal and state government. Election Protection works year-round to ensure all voters have an opportunity to cast their ballot in any election. In early May, the Election Protection 866-OUR-VOTE hotline will be ready to help voters taking part in on local elections all across Texas.

One major challenge for the American Democratic experiment moving forward is reengaging voters at the local level. In a country priding itself on free and fair elections, it can be difficult for citizens to be active participants in federal, state, and local elections. Voting is fundamental to our democracy and it is one of the most powerful ways citizens can ensure their interests are heard in the American Democracy. Let’s reengage in our local communities. Let’s become educated on community issues affecting our lives. Let’s go out there and vote.

Matthew Baiza is a junior at Stanford University double majoring in Political Science and Sociology and is currently a Voting Rights Project Intern at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, he has actively been involved in local politics since high school and hopes to return to San Antonio upon graduation to continue his work.

[i] http://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/voter-turnout-data

[ii] http://heavy.com/news/2017/04/georgia-6th-sixth-district-live-results-voting-numbers-who-won-winning-jon-ossoff-karen-handel-runoff-atlanta/

[iii] http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-voter-turnout-municipal-elections.html

[iv] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/04/21/fact-check-spinning-georgia-special-election-results/100739858/