Life + Culture

Local Elections: Vote!

Tuesday is another election day.
Are you registered? Do you know your polling place?

I've always made it a point to vote in all elections, local and national, that were available to me, just on basic stubborn principle. Recent years have emphasized to me how truly important local elections are, even as a matter of life and death.

In Ferguson, Police Chief Thomas Jackson was appointed by the elected mayor (via city manager). The St. Louis County Chief of Police, Jon Belmar, was also appointed by elected officials (county executive and city council).  In Beavercreek, the Ohio city where John Crawford was killed, the elected city council members, city manager, and city mayor were the ones to appoint the Chief of Police Dennis Evers and the ones who determine police budgeting allocations. These are the folks overseeing the police force chains-of-command that establish protocols, that train their officers, that give the orders, that the lead internal investigations, and that buy military equipment for their departments.

And state-level elections matter too. The special prosecutor for the Crawford shooting, Mark Piepmeier, was appointed by State Attorney General Mike DeWine. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey was elected to office in 2008 before famously failing to convict George Zimmerman of murder, even while prosecuting Marissa Alexander to the fullest extent of the law. And it was Florida Governor Rick Scott who first assigned Corey to the Zimmerman case.


County executive? Attorney General? City Council? County Sheriff? State Attorney? When is the last time you paid close attention to who was elected to these offices? But these are the elected positions that had direct influence on the most prominent racial cases of recent history.

Though the narrative is sometimes convoluted, it's the local ballot elections that are at the center of most racial justice issues today. They determine who will be prosecuted under New Jim Crow laws, which legislatures might propose a new Kill-At-Will bill or a mandatory sentencing law. It's the county commissioners, governors, and state officials that determine how your local taxes are spent, whether on police militarization or on public transportation. It's the school board members that decide whether to feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline or to actively reverse systemic educational disparity. It's also these local elections that regulate housing affordabilityenvironmental justice, and discrimination laws--all decisions made at the local level, and with immediate consequences for racial justice.
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But as important as off-year voting is, it's not always made easy. Municipal elections are often held during odd-numbered years (as is the case in Ferguson and Beavercreek), those without major national elections, and thus with lower expected voter turnout. States may enact restrictive laws that reduce voter participation (see post: The Trouble with Voter ID Laws). While Ohio, like most states, allows for early voting, the law is getting more prohibitive, the Supreme Court having recently eliminated all evening voting hours and reduced weekend voting from 24 to 16 hours.

Clearly, laws such as these disproportionately affect working-class folk who hold one or more jobs to make ends meet. Of note, it is also elected local officials, like Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who regulate the elections themselves.

Shouldn't we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn't we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?

Perhaps there is a fear of allowing more people to vote in a democratic society. But if a political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.

Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 94 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.

Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all of our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.

This year, make plans to ensure that you cast your ballot for local elections. Most states allow no-excuse absentee ballot voting, which means you can vote in your pajamas from the comfort of your couch (allowing you to research each of the names and issues that appear on your ballot as you go). As mentioned above, most states also allow for early in-person voting, which means you can find a time to vote that is convenient for your schedule. No excuses this year.

So, check yourself: are you registered? Is your registered address current? Do you know the ID requirements in your state? If you're all set personally, help ensure that your friends and neighbors also understand their voting rights and the importance of local elections. Organize a trip with your church to go vote together, or volunteer to help shuttle voters to the polls on election day.

As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). We tend to pay attention to the Office of the President more than any other elected official. But our voices have the most influence on our own lives, and the lives of our neighbors, when we make sure to vote locally.
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