From Washington D.C. to Your Backyard: Knowledgeable Voting With the Local Community in Mind

When voting impacts something as big as the presidency, it can feel like a zero-sum game. Either the person you voted for wins or they lose. However, there’s more to a ballot than just the presidential candidates.

Local elections and legislation that are decided through a vote, are just as important as who the president is. From sheriffs to judges, researching and evaluating the candidates for your community can help you make an informed decision about the people that are representing you. Conceptualizing the impacts of the election can be difficult when it happens on a national level, but the local side is just as important to understand.

“For me, to think about things locally has been a little bit easier because I can actually envision what that is versus ‘what does it look like to resist an entire system?’ That’s hard,” said Dr. Cristina Mislán, an associate professor of journalism studies at Mizzou. “Well maybe, what does it look like to be in resistance of a smaller system that is my immediate surroundings?”

The problem may not feel local, but the solutions might be. For example, if you think that sentencing for criminal charges is harsh or problematic, look into the judges serving in your area. Voters can decide if judges are allowed to continue serving which means that they have a responsibility to represent the public interest.

“When you vote for, for instance, your senators, that becomes really important because those are the people then who are going to ideally bring your interests to Congress,” Mislán said. “Now, I think we’ve seen that that’s not the case really because our interests can often be overridden by a particular individual’s interests which is why it’s important that we think about who we’re voting as our local representatives.

Additionally, ballots include legislation, amendments, and referendums from the state and local level. Voting on the local level can help support whichever side you prefer, according to Samuel Peterson, freshman political science and economics major.

“In a state like Missouri, I think we’ve seen that voting on the state level we’ve seen a lot of referendums that have been very important like Medicaid expansion or voting down right to work laws,” Peterson said. “The Missouri state senate has a supermajority of Republicans and Democrats would not want them to have it. And Columbia is one of the two really competitive races that could flip that chamber in the state senate election in Boone County. If you really care about healthcare expansion or about public education, all of those are state-level issues.”

Although it is an important part, the importance of voting extends beyond who sits in the oval office. From city government regulating utilities to county government maintaining the jails, even the smaller forms of government contribute to larger issues.

“The local level has a more immediate impact,” Mislán said. “National level has impact but a lot of times those impacts are long-term like you might not see that immediately. For some people, they do see that immediately.”

Creating a positive impact comes from creating and maintaining a positive community. The reality is that local elections can indicate how the details of the next national election go which plays a role in creating that positive environment.

“If you care about national elections you have to care about local elections, especially state-level elections because the people who draw the maps for the national elections are elected on the state level.”

Change can feel like it needs to be world-changing all the time, but even small changes make a difference. It may not be the difference we need to see, but it can become a precursor to larger systemic issues.

“It’s not just about political positions and voting for those local elections but it’s also about what is going on in the community and what are the resources that local communities have?” Mislán said. “What happens with the school system, what happens with real estate, and housing, and segregation, and businesses? I think there’s a lot of different ways that we can look at our local context and see a lot of what’s happening and how if anything. It’s easier to grasp a smaller area in what’s happening than it is to grasp the big.”

Voting can feel like such a small task with a national impact, but the importance of voting is closer to home than people tend to think. The formal wording of a ballot mixed with the rigid structure of how we vote can make it seem like we have little to no influence and disregards the change we can create on a more local scale.

Local elections should not be something we ignore. They not only impact local and state politics, but they can also kickstart the career of a politician that isn’t respecting their constituents’ views. Every four years, the nation is given the opportunity to change something bigger, but we don’t go to the polls just to fill in one oval. Each November the ballot includes different positions and legislation that have a direct impact on how we live and are represented. When they count your ballot, you’re engaging with different levels of politics that can generate the change you want to see in the country.