Some of you noticed, I’m sure, the Daily Tar Heel editorial objecting to the fact that one of Carolina Review’s writers wrote an article advocating voting but did not vote in her own local elections. The editorial went on to name several other prominent campus figures – including three members of Seth Dearmin’s cabinet and a Daily Tar Heel columnist – who did not vote in their local elections. All of this finger pointing about who did and didn’t vote, however, is distracting from the main issue, namely, that few people are voting in local elections.
Based on liberal ideology this isn’t much of a problem. By definition, liberals in America want more government, more federal programs, and more central regulation of people’s lives. The local arena is just a testing ground for more important state and federal policies. To liberals, therefore, local elections do not hold much importance when compared to state and federal elections.
From a conservative or libertarian standpoint, however, local elections should hold vast importance. Libertarians want little or no government control over their lives, while conservatives clearly want to limit the powers of the federal government. Both ideologies clearly base themselves on the power and rights of the individual and try to limit government’s influence over the individual. As a result, the level of government closest to the individual – the local level – should hold the most importance.
Most individuals will never have an effect on the federal government. On the local level, however, the individual can make an important impact. In Durham, NC, where I am registered to vote, for instance, our lovely city government appointed Marcia Conner as city manager in 2001. Unfortunately, Ms. Conner was unqualified for the job (she had not graduated from a management program that she claimed to have graduated from), violated city policy, and was unable to hire a police chief. Once all of these problems were exposed, several citizens banded together and organized a petition calling for Conner’s resignation. In the face of the petition, Conner was forced to resign. Local individuals were able to challenge and change the local government with a few weeks of effort. Could they have caused the same changes had Ms. Conner been the Secretary of State? Probably not.
Still, many will argue that the local elections are not important. After all, your county’s government is not going to solve the Social Security problem or, with the exception of Carrboro, NC, try to stop the war in Iraq.
While local politics may not be sexy, that doesn’t mean that local elections are unimportant. Schools, garbage collection, and property taxes are just some of the very important actions under the direct control of local governments. Don’t believe me? Look at the difference between the Chapel Hill and Durham school systems. Chapel Hill voters place high importance on the school system and provide bonuses to all teachers so that they will come to Chapel Hill. As a result, Chapel Hill’s schools are the best in North Carolina. Durham, meanwhile, is plagued by an ineffectual and racially divided school board. Not surprisingly Durham’s schools are among the worst in the state.
The point is not to advocate more spending on schools. Instead, the point is that local government has a real impact. Local governments have important responsibilities and your city council can truly influence your day-to-day life. For libertarians and conservatives this is a good thing. Individuals, the starting-point of both political theories, can have tremendous influence on the local government. Citizens can hold local officials directly responsible for their actions. And if things get really out of hand, a concerned citizen can run for office without spending a fortune or having to move.
So before we conservatives start complaining about the federal government and its plethora of policies that we will probably never change, let’s take a look at our local governments. Get informed about the politics. Get involved with the system. Get out and vote.
On the local level you can make a difference.