To Americans, July 4th means many things: cookouts, time with friends and family, history, and — most of all — dazzling fireworks displays. Every Independence Day, 61% of Americans will attend a Fourth of July picnic, and 40% of Americans will attend one of 14,000 firework displays held around the country. Of all national holidays, few are as widely celebrated and beloved as July 4th. However, while the holiday is a celebration of American democracy, rarely is it used to try to strengthen and reform our democracy.
While disappointing, this fact is not that surprising. July 4th is often celebrated apolitically, seen more as a celebration than a time to reform the country at large. Not to mention that many do not associate mid-summer with elections, traditionally viewed as a November occurrence. Especially after the polarizing results of the 2020 election, many are probably trying to avoid politics altogether as they reconnect with friends and family this Fourth of July. However, July is a crucial time for democracy, especially at the critically overlooked local level.
Let’s change things this Independence Day. Let’s use the holiday as a time to reflect on this country we call home, and question how we as individuals can use our voices to create a more equitable America.
Why Americans Don’t Vote (Locally)
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans were extremely concerned with the direction of the country. One poll, taken in mid-July 2020, reported 80% of Americans believed the country was going in the wrong direction. While this number has shifted significantly with the new administration and vaccination surge in early 2021, it reveals that many Americans are consistently upset with the current state of the country.
The 2020 election was a time where Americans came out to voice their opinions, with record breaking turnouts despite the global pandemic. However, this same enthusiasm is rarely reflected in local elections. Even in places with above average turnout, often less than 50% of citizens participate in local elections, and this is especially true for years without national primaries or elections.
Local elections are arguably more important to the lives of Americans, so why do they not participate in them as much as they do in national elections?
Many think about voting during the highly publicized midterm and presidential elections, but did you know there are elections almost every year? Dozens of cities, counties and states are holding extremely important elections this summer and fall. Are you aware of your own local elections? Check out Ballotpedia’s Election Calendar to find elections in your area.
A Lack of Media Attention
In the 2020 election cycle, $8.5 billion was spent on political advertising around the country. This mostly went into high profile local and regional elections, like the president, governors, senators and congresspeople. Rarely does even a fraction of this money or media attention go into smaller scale elections, leaving many Americans unaware of local election dates, candidates and issues.
This fact plays into a large aspect of why many Americans do not pay attention to local elections: knowledge. Simply put, many Americans are not fully aware of which powers local government has over national, and how local elections dramatically impact their daily lives.
A study by Johns Hopkins University found that “About a quarter of respondents weren’t sure if it was federal or state government that was mostly in charge of law enforcement” and “Thirty percent didn’t know who made zoning laws.” It is clear many Americans are not fully aware of what their local governments can and cannot do, yet local jurisdiction plays a big factor in local quality of life.
The Harvard Political Review highlights how local government has direct control over city and county infrastructure. “Whether it is the guarantee of having healthy drinking water or the benefits of maintained streets and bridges, infrastructure is a concern that should remain on the forefront of voters’ minds as they consider the candidates of a city-level election.” While the national government can greatly affect the lives of Americans, local government has direct control over the quality of daily life.
From schooling, water, roads and waste management, the direction and spending of local government visibility impacts American communities. However, a lack of media attention and public knowledge is not the only reason many do not engage in local elections.
Simply put, many Americans feel disenfranchised from politics all together, and this reflects down to the local level. Chicago Public Schools security officer Peter Rivera echoes this sentiment, saying “Once they’re in [office], they’ll forget about you … it’s all about money and power, that’s all they want.” If local politicians are not improving communities, many Americans question the point of voting in the first place. However, disenfranchisement is not just because of a lack of change, and is sometimes intentionally created.
In many parts of the country, especially in communities of color, election officials will strategically close polling places to ensure community members have fewer places to vote. In turn, this creates extremely long lines at polling places, making the process of voting take hours. This is the intended result, exacerbating voting difficulty and making the voting process appear not worth the time commitment. This process actively suppresses the votes of millions, making voting nearly impossible for Americans with families or multiple jobs.
A similar process is seen with redistricting, where state level officials gerrymander state districts — redrawing them in a way which purposely gives an advantage to a political party. Much like the closing of polling places, this process is done to minimize the votes of people of color, placing their communities into monolithic districts, giving them little power to impact general elections.
When people benefit from a broken system, there is a strong incentive to keep it broken. If many Americans cannot or are disillusioned by the political system, real sustainable progress will always remain a pipe dream. This is why — in spite of all the blockades — Americans must take an active part in the political system, beginning at the all important local level.
Celebrating and Strengthening America
You may not want to be political this Fourth of July; after all, it’s a holiday to celebrate America. However it must be asked, is having an active part in the country — especially at the local level — not a form of celebration in itself? Although elections and politics can be very divisive, they are also critical to shaping the direction of our country, ensuring that those who represent us and create laws and ordinances which affect our daily lives are truly doing so.
If you are interested in finding more ways to have a positive impact on our electoral system and democracy as a whole, check out Impactree’s Good Governance Action Page.
This article originally appeared on Impactree’s Blog.