Local Government Matters
By Timothy Bristol
Every so often in my little section of the Crier, I want to talk about some thoughts about politics in general, and ideas that aren’t just related to Connecticut or Stratford. This time I want to talk about local government and how important local politics are.
First, I want to say that I understand that local politics are not as flashy or compelling as national politics. Most of local government is very boring and can be especially so if a municipality is run by essentially one party. Budget meetings are boring, public works meetings are boring, and zoning board meetings are boring. I don’t disagree with any of that, but they are also important. They are important to the function of the town and go largely unnoticed by the people who live there.
I often tell people the local government is the most important level of government. Your local town council more directly affects your life than anything that happens in congress. They control your property tax, school funding, and what is being built in town. The candidates who get elected to the various boards and committees in a municipality are often overlooked, but nonetheless, vital to decisions made in the town.
Now many people will say, “Tim, the same people get re-elected each year, my vote does not matter.” To that I say local government is where one vote matters the most. Every office from Mayor all the way down to Board of Zoning appeals has such a small voter pool that 50 votes one way or another could swing the race. I have seen races decided by less than 10 votes, my own races have been as close as 200 votes. In local elections, every vote matters, and every dollar contributed to campaigns matters.
The vast majority of Local races are also locally funded. Most local campaigns are run on less than one thousand dollars, and that money is stretched. Most candidates make do with some yard signs and a box of walk cards. Mailers are only affordable if you have a lot of money; so, most candidates knock on doors to get votes. Having knocked on many doors, I will say most people don’t answer. Behind the curtain, in campaigns, they would be happy if people answered 25% of doors knocked. That is just the nature of campaigning, but the part that gets me is the lack of voter interest in local elections.
Political participation has several levels, and at the very bottom is voting. Voting is the least a citizen can do to participate in civic life, and about 70% of voters don’t vote in local elections. According to the Book Bowling Alone written by Robert Putnam “Voting is by a substantial margin the most common form of political activity, and it embodies the most fundamental democratic principle of equality. Not to vote is to withdraw from the political community.” Too many voters have become withdrawn from their local politics, and this disinterest hurts the politics surrounding local government.
Because voters have become disengaged, other levels of political participation such as joining local party committees, attending public meetings, and running for office have become even rarer. I am not saying that you must spend all your time going to town council meetings, but it would benefit a community if everyone paid attention. We need to be more engaged; more people need to be in the conversation. More people need to run for those local offices because more candidates create more competitive races. The greater engagement from the public in local government, the more the government will have to listen.