What Are We Even Voting For? The Importance of Participating in Local Politics

by Sarah McLaughlin '23 on November 17, 2022

Editor's Column

by Sarah McLaughlin ’23

Sarah McLaughlin ’23, Editor-in-Chief

Last week, many of us (hopefully most of us) voted in the midterm elections. I don’t think I’m the only one who found myself staring at my absentee ballot in my left hand while I frantically typed names of candidates and elected positions into Ballotpedia’s search bar with my right. As a political science major, I thought I should have been more knowledgeable about my local leaders and issues. But some names I only see every two years when it’s time to vote again.

My roommate and I, both from Massachusetts, spent an hour last Monday afternoon going over the four questions on our ballots. While many of them seemed like minor issues that did not affect us (proposed regulations for dental insurers) or comical at best (banning the sale of alcohol in self-checkout lines), we realized eventually how they could affect our daily lives. I thought about how these local votes arguably have a much larger impact on my everyday life than re-electing my unopposed congressman.

This lack of local knowledge reflects a larger theme; the rising nationalization of U.S. politics. Our news media focus on presidential races, Senate races with high-profile candidates, and hot-button issues. Many of us feel that we are more politically polarized as a country than ever. Yet, at the same time, less and less voters show up to town hall meetings.

Many Americans have become disillusioned with politics, expressing that their vote doesn’t matter. Our electoral system does have serious structural issues in this regard. However, on the local level, your vote really does count.

I noticed the presence of this nationalization when I was helping facilitate the discussion with Chris Matthews two weeks ago. He spent a large portion of his time talking about the Pennsylvania Senate race, which was an important and impactful race, but not as relevant to us as, say, the race between Dan McKee and Ashley Kalus for Governor of Rhode Island, or even the Massachusetts ballot question that proposed to bar undocumented immigrants from being able to acquire a driver’s license.

Who is to blame? Well, nationalization makes television news more profitable, as well as YouTube channels and other social media accounts, when they can use controversial and recognizable candidates and topics as clickbait. But the onus is also on our education system. Students who have graduated high school and gone through three years of college surely should know how to interpret their ballots on Election Day. Maybe this means organizing on-campus events to educate voters on local issues and candidates. Maybe it means making Election Day a national holiday so students and workers have more time to spend at the polls. Maybe it means that The Cowl, as a news organization, should dedicate more of our space to these topics. I’m not sure what the correct answer is. But I certainly believe we all have a responsibility to educate ourselves, so at the very least we don’t feel like we’re ticking meaningless boxes.