Who cares about local government anyway? As it turns out, not a lot of people.
During the last City Council and mayoral election in Austin (back in November 2014), voter turnout was about 40 percent. Two years earlier, during the presidential election, turnout was 60 percent. Nearly 90,000 additional Austinites voted for president than voted for their mayor or city council member.
And 2014 was actually a very good year for local elections. During the famed Uber/Lyft/Prop 1 election in May of this year, voter turnout was 17.5 percent. Less than 100,000 people ended up voting in an election that boasted such large campaign and advertising budgets, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in the city who hadn’t at least heard about it. For a period of time, I was receiving at least a dozen flyers stuffed in my mail box each week. And yet, only 89,285 people voted out of a city with over 509,000 registered voters.
It hardly makes sense.
Local government directly affects nearly every aspect of our lives. It influences the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the energy we use, and the parks we play in. On a purely numerical basis, we also can have a much larger impact on local elections. A smaller pool of people simply means that your vote goes further.
And perhaps most consequentially, local officials (for the most part anyway) are far more accessible than national politicians. They shop at your grocery store, their kids go to same school as yours, and their office hours are held at your neighborhood library. Simply put, you have far greater access to your City Council member than to your senator, and that can make a big difference.
There is perhaps no one better to talk about this with than Greg Casar. In 2014, when he was elected to Austin’s City Council he became its youngest-ever member at 25 years old. He currently represents District 4 (in North Central Austin) on Austin’s City Council. I sat down with him last week to talk about local government, civic engagement, and a how a new generation of Austinites might influence the city. He’ll continue to discuss all of these issues at the Austin EcoNetwork’s upcoming Civics 101 Happy Hour, “Why Local Government Matters,” on June 21st.
What makes local government different?
What’s at stake for Austin?
Is getting involved in local government actually worth it? Can I really make a difference?
Why should young people be involved in local government?
Why care about local government as much as the national one? Why does any of this even matter?
Now is an especially important time for people of all ages to be involved in local government. Austin is at a crossroads. Everyone seems to know that.
What everyone doesn’t seem to know is what to do about it. How can we be a city that innovates on transportation? Or regains our affordability? Or tackles climate change?
While the answers to all of these questions are still being hashed out, one thing is for certain – Austin will not become the city you want it to be unless you get involved.
Now admittedly, politics can be tricky and you’re probably not going to get everything you want all at once. But, as the saying goes, “you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.”
Government is run by those who choose to get involved. For years that has meant that certain groups have been excluded (often times, intentionally so) but there is only one way that will ever change.
“I myself got involved in local politics because all the voices that were in our city were not at the table negotiating some of the most important issues facing Austin. Often times working-class families, immigrant families, people not living at the very central core of Austin, did not have enough power to really shape decisions that would be fair.” – Greg Casar
For more, be sure to come to our upcoming Civics 101 Happy Hour, “Why Local Government Matters,” at in.gredients on June 21st from 6pm to 8pm. We’ll be talking about the influence that local government has over our everyday lives, as well as how average Austinites can get more involved. We hope to see you there!