"The grand ideas of Ronald Reagan live…in young Americans like Jason Shepherd…"

MDJ: EDITORIAL: When elections are local, voters stay away in droves; But these are the officials with closest impact

Though no federal or statewide offices will be on the ballot, the stakes are high for the Nov. 7 election.

Voters in five of Cobb’s six cities, a state House district and a state Senate district will head to the polls to choose who represents them at the local levels.

The seats vacated by former state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, and former state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna, both of whom are vying to be governor next year, proved to be a study in contrasts — only one person qualified for Evans’ seat, while eight are vying for Hill’s.

In Marietta, two City Council and three school board seats are being contested.

In Smyrna, the only election will fill former Councilwoman Teri Anulewicz’ seat. Anulewicz lucked out when she ran for Evans’ statehouse seat and garnered no challengers, all but ushering her to victory.

Kennesaw has three contested council races, as does Austell. Powder Springs has one.

Turnout for municipal elections is traditionally poor. In Marietta’s Nov. 2013 municipal election, only 5,126 of the 27,500 registered voters (18.6 percent) completed their civic duty. Austell saw only 19.6 percent voter participation while Kennesaw saw only 12.6 percent that year.

Cobb GOP Chairman Jason Shepherd finds it odd people don’t vote in local elections given that most of the key issues currently dividing our nation are almost exclusively governed at the local level.

Conventional wisdom, he maintains, lists a handful of reasons for this outcome: a lack of publicity, lack of knowledge about the candidates and lack of party identification, which helps voters make a choice when they do not have more information about a candidate. During presidential elections, Shepherd said, more than $1 billion is spent on get-out-the-vote efforts and media coverage is dialed up to 11.

“There is no doubt which party the candidates belong to, and most voters know where the candidates stand on the issues. That is not the case in mid-term elections, which see about half of the turnout numbers of presidential years and less so for municipal elections,” he said.

The GOP chairman even sees some of these forces driving down turnout in primaries during regular election years. Republicans or Democrats can’t simply press the screen for the Republican or Democratic option, but have to figure out which Republican or which Democratic will best represents their party. And if they don’t know the candidates, Shepherd said they are less likely to vote.

“If you are less likely to vote, you are less likely to be targeted for get-out-the-vote efforts and direct mail, so you never receive information which may better inform you about all of the candidates,” he said.

In addition, he said there is little to no party involvement in municipal elections, given they are nonpartisan. Not a single candidate running on the local level has come to the Cobb GOP and asked for assistance for get-out-the-vote activities, Shepherd said. His offers to do so received no response. Perhaps they’re afraid of being branded Republican and losing Democrat votes.

 

Like Shepherd, Michael Owens, chair of the Cobb Democratic Committee, cites a lack of awareness for the low turnout, arguing most people do not know there is an election underway. Owens believes while this is true to a degree in nearly every election, it is particularly acute in municipal and special elections. The majority of candidates running at the local level do not have the funds to saturate mailboxes and airwaves that candidates serving in higher office do, he said.

Two other contributing factors come to his mind: accessibility and apathy. Owens believes access to polling locations challenges municipal elections voters. Only a few sparsely-located early voting sites are spread throughout the county.

As for apathy, he said “a combination of problems ranging from ill-qualified candidates, voting system integrity issues, increasing corporate influence and hyper-partisanship has made many people believe that the system is ‘rigged,’ that their vote doesn’t count or that regardless of the candidate elected things aren’t going to change.”

But each vote does count. In the 2013 Marietta City Council election between incumbent Annette Lewis and challenger Stuart Fleming, Fleming one by a single vote.

Whatever the reason, the electorate only gets serious about politics when the White House tops the ballot and it’s down to two contenders or during a particularly unusual race like that of Karen Handel vs. Jon Ossoff earlier this year.

Meanwhile, those who dutifully vote in every election find themselves standing in long lines every presidential year, wondering, “Where were all you people the last three-and-a-half years?”

To vote for commander-in-chief or Congress is vital to democracy. But in many ways, it’s the “locals” who have a greater impact on your life, your community, your neighborhood and your street. Local officials set policies and launch initiatives closer to home — they also set property tax rates and decide how to spend the millions that those taxes bring in.

Afraid of what might be built on that vacant lot at the end of your street? Would you like to see the bike path through town extended to your neighborhood? Could increased safety patrols ease your angst? Looking for some relief on property taxes? These are the matters under the control of your local elected officials.

Democracy works. It works best when the citizenry is informed and the participation level is high.

If you are a registered voter, be part of the process. Advanced voting is available this week. Election day is Nov. 7.