Why You Should Care About Local Elections
Like many New Yorkers, I usually avoid people who try to talk to me on the sidewalk. Whether it’s a coupon for a new hair salon shoved in my face or a college student asking me to donate money to a cause, I usually mutter, “Sorry, I’m late” and keep walking, or I pretend not to see the person at all.
Last summer, I realized what it was like to be on the other side of this interaction. I was collecting signatures for a member of the East Harlem community to get on the ballot for a party position. New York City politics are ridiculously complicated, but what’s important to know here is that the position was currently unfilled, and the community was unrepresented. There are actually hundreds of open seats throughout the New York City political machine. These open local seats seem insignificant, but that is only because the parties want us to think they are insignificant. In fact, the parties hand select individuals to fill these “insignificant” roles, and then when political positions open up – usually via death, arrest, or simply through the shifting political landscape when everyone moves up the ladder – it is the few insiders occupying these “insignificant” seats who move up to the next, and more powerful, position. This political nepotism is how the parties create the “establishment” that so many people hate.
So a mother and small business owner, highly active in her community and an organizer with OFA, decided to act. She was running to fill that seat, but first she needed to collect 1,000 signatures from registered Democratic voters in the district. The only way to really know whether someone is a registered Democrat in the district is for them to tell you, and often people aren’t really sure. So this means to collect 1,000 valid signatures, we were aiming to collect more than twice that number in the case some were contested.
In the two shifts I spent standing on high-traffic street corners near Mount Sinai and Central Park, asking folks whether they were registered Democrats, I collected about five signatures. And that was considered pretty good!
Most people were too busy to stop and talk to me; some thought I was asking for money, and barely any let me explain that I was only asking for a signature to get a candidate on the ballot, not for their money and certainly not for their vote. In that moment, I remembered all the times I brushed off folks on the street and felt ashamed. Because people didn’t want to listen to a stranger, they might continue to be unrepresented, and who could blame them? Explaining the story of how or why this could even begin to make a difference for them would take much more time that a brief interaction on a New York City sidewalk would allow for, even if they had stopped to talk.
Since then, I’ve volunteered in a few different elections, from local to national in scale. But this election season, I am constantly reminded that what really matters in my neighborhood and ultimately New York State is actually the local action: what isn’t covered by the media and what the big party machines don’t want you to know about. The Presidential election is a great distraction for voters to spend months debating lofty policies, while behind the scenes, seats are left empty or filled by a partisan pick, maintaining the status quo, cycle after cycle.
And who continues to get chosen to fill those seats? Wealthy, white men. Thus, whom do their policies continue to serve? You guessed it, the patriarchy. Which is why I’m calling for something this election season I haven’t heard enough about: support of diverse candidates in local elections, especially women.
The underrepresentation of women in our government is staggering. Twenty-two states have never had a female senator! Women are much less likely than men to run for office. Because national policies preclude women and people of color from gaining social, political and economic capital, women are hindered by criticism, intolerance, and lack of resources, or they equate running for office with selfishly putting themselves before their families. Not only are women left to rely on a single, dissimilar demographic to represent them, but America as a whole is also stunted in economic growth and technologic advancement. With half the population underutilized (as evidenced by the low percentage of women in tech), we are missing out on half the talent. Women for All of Tennessee has a great video outlining the ways the Tennessee state legislature is failing to serve its people, and they argue with more women in office, they can increase access to healthcare and education. With so few women in power across Federal, state and local positions, young girls also lack role models in positions of power who share their identity, and the vicious cycle continues.
Rutgers maintains a list of all women running for office in every state—their websites should all list information for how to get involved in their campaigns. WomenCount.org makes it easy to donate to female candidates individually or via a slate. Diversity of donors is especially important, considering that men are more likely than women to donate to political campaigns and thus more likely to have a political impact via that candidate. Better yet, consider running yourself with the resources available on She Should Run or Off the Sidelines.
Despite majoring in political science as an undergraduate, if I had continued to walk down the sidewalk with headphones and tunnel vision, I would have never realized how important it is, truly, to be involved in civil society. The national rhetoric on the importance of voting in big elections can be frustrating within a rigged system, which disenfranchises a significant portion of the American people and gerrymanders districts to favor already privileged districts. Fortunately, our nation allows for participation in the political system on the local level and within civic organizations, which gives me hope of eventually impacting the system as a whole. We simply cannot continue to let those who hold power continue to hide opportunities from those who need them most.
Katrina works at a health education tech company and volunteers with various advocacy organizations in New York City. She is passionate about women in elected leadership, and she will happily volunteer for your campaign! @KatrinaBallard
May 13, 2016