By T.M. Sell, Ph.D.
When I ask my students when the next election is, frequently they will say “November 2024” or whichever presidential year is coming up next.
In fact there is an election every year. Odd-numbered years feature local races such as school boards, city councils and utility districts. Who fills these seats likely will have a larger impact on your immediate life than who the president is, but these elections have the lowest turnout of the four-year election cycle.
It’s worth noting that recently, Democrats in King County got voters to approve moving county elections to even-numbered years, in line with the rest of the state. They hope it will increase voter turnout.
Ironically, this move will most help Republicans, since Republican voters are more like to vote all the way to the bottom of the ballot. That matters because in presidential years, Washington voters face perhaps the longest ballots on earth, and the total vote for each office falls considerably by the time we get to district court judges and what-not.
Nonetheless, you should vote in this year’s elections. Cities are generally 4P: police, parks, planning and potholes. So if you care about what gets built where, how many police are on patrol, or fixing divots in your local roads, it matters who’s there.
School boards set policy, approve budgets and hire and fire the superintendent. Much of the policy is dictated by the state, and the boards don’t wade into classrooms and discipline teachers. Variation in district test scores can be largely explained by average income levels and by the number of homes in a district where English is not the first language spoken.
Nonetheless, a well-managed district can take action to help students, and also keep teachers happy. If you don’t think that matters, remember that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And that ought to count for something.
Please note: Cities have nothing to do with running the schools. So don’t be one of those folks who calls the mayor to complain about the schools. They don’t run them.
Aside from all these things that affect your local quality of life, you should vote because you can.
Consider the reasons folks don’t vote: They don’t like the candidates. Really? I’ve never met a perfect candidate, and if I did it would scare me. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Broken promises: Be real. You’re electing one person who will work with four to eight others to try to make policy. Any candidate who vows to make something happen doesn’t understand how things work. You’re electing a tendency, not a certainty.
The first rule of politics is learn to count. If you have four votes on a seven-member council, you have policy. If you have three, you have nothing, no matter how brilliant your idea may be.
Meanwhile, with mail-in ballots, drop boxes, voters pamphlets and late registration (up to the day of the election if you want to go to the county elections office, eight days before to register online), Washington state has made it as easy as possible to vote. So lack of time and information is a difficult argument to make for why you don’t vote.
(You can register at myvote.wa.gov. All you need is a driver’s license or valid state ID. It will take you less than five minutes to register.)
You should always vote because your vote always counts. When you vote, you are the equal of everyone else. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos get no more votes than you.
Your vote always counts because of margin of victory. If you support candidate X and feel certain that she or he will win, you vote anyway because the more they win by, the less likely they will face serious opposition next time around.
If your favored candidate is likely to lose, you still vote. The closer they get in terms of the vote, the more likely they or someone else on your side of the political fence will get more serious support the next time they run.
Political operatives watch margin of victory, and from this they know – Candidate X is solid, don’t waste your time and money chasing after them. Candidate Y didn’t win by much and will be vulnerable next time around.
Above all, voting gives you the right to complain. How many people have you met who like to complain about government but don’t vote (and often don’t seem to know how it works)? You can be certain that your vote counts even less if you don’t use it.
T.M. Sell, Ph.D. is professor of political economy at Highline College. His latest book is Washington State Politics and Government, published by the University of Nebraska Press.