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Why Local Elections Matter

Research & Commentary
August 06, 2015

by Sheila Kennedy

Amidst the frenzy of the 2016 Presidential election, let us not forget the importance of local politics.

By Sheila Suess Kennedyvoting-booth-325x177

Our televisions and Internet feeds are rapidly filling with punditry and news coverage of the 2016 Presidential race.

It’s hard to fault the media for its fascination with our quadrennial political spectacle, especially since the Republican field contains no fewer than seventeen candidates (at this count—who knows what other hats may be flung into the ring), many of whom are happily demonstrating that they are spectacularly unfit for public office.

The outcome of the national elections—not just for President, but also for the House and Senate—will have an enormous impact on economic policy, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of electing people who understand the consequences of continued erosion of the American middle class.

What frequently gets lost in arguments over the direction our national government should take, however, is the importance of our governing structures much closer to home, and the competence of the people who deal with issues that affect our everyday lives.

The most prominent example of the importance of local government—and its impact on civic equality—is the current outcry over incidents of police misconduct. The ubiquity of cameras has generated visual evidence of abuses that might previously have remained “under the radar,” and that evidence has sparked a national conversation about policing: how recruits are selected, the adequacy of training, and the role played by racial stereotypes, among other issues.

What we need to understand is that these incidents are not spread uniformly across the country; they are generally, although not always, evidence of poor local governing practices.

The importance of good policing to poorer communities is obvious. In cities where crime is poorly controlled, it is generally poor neighborhoods that bear the brunt; residents of gated communities and wealthy subdivisions can and do employ additional security.

Beyond police and fire protection, local government policies and priorities have an immediate effect on those living within their jurisdictions. The way in which city hall deals with the myriad everyday challenges of municipal life may seem boring until your uncollected garbage draws rats and other vermin, or the wheel of your car is bent in an unfilled pothole, or the lack of public health measures in the schools allows for an infestation of head lice that affects your children, or failure to remediate lead in older neighborhoods permanently diminishes the intellectual capacities of the children who live there.

In each of these cases, the impact on poorer citizens is likely to be far greater than the impact on their more privileged and empowered neighbors.

When we go to the polls to elect Mayors and City Councilors, a focus on their commitment to equitable delivery of essential public services is important. But quality of life issues are equally important—and equally likely to affect poorer residents more directly. Public transportation may be a lifestyle choice for the executive who leaves his car in the garage and rides the bus to work, but it is likely to be a lifeline for the entry-level worker who can’t afford a car.

Too many Americans ignore off-year elections, and only exercise their franchise every four years. But the policies and performance of local and state governments can exacerbate or mitigate inequality. They matter.

Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at

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