Don't overlook local elections this year

Jul. 17, 2013 @ 04:10 AM

While the General Assembly in Raleigh is getting most of the attention from the political world in North Carolina right now, an important event recently occurred almost unnoticed. Sandwiched between Independence Day and, for many residents, a long weekend, candidate filing for the 2013 municipal elections got underway with little fanfare.

Candidates who wish to run for local offices this year had their first opportunity to formally declare their candidacy on July 5 and will have until July 19 to officially make their decision and file paperwork with their local board of elections office.

Running for local office is often a much different animal than running for the General Assembly or Congress, and certainly much different than running a statewide campaign. Yard signs typically outnumber TV ads in municipal races. And voters are much more likely to spot a candidate for local office knocking on doors in their neighborhood than they would see a candidate for higher office walking along their street.

Unfortunately, these differences also translate into much lower voter participation and candidate awareness. In 2012, North Carolina had a voter turnout rate just under 70 percent as citizens cast ballots for president, governor, Congress and the N.C. General Assembly, along with many other races. But this year, if the past is any guide, many municipalities will be lucky to see even 20 percent voter turnout.

The lack of participation in local races is somewhat strange since these municipal offices can often have a much bigger impact on the average citizens' day-to-day life than the president or the governor. In voting for offices like school board or city council, your vote is helping to determine the policies of your local school district and where your child goes to school. Your vote can also help determine future property tax increases or where new growth will occur in your area.

These are big decisions that can have a significant impact on a community, but too often they are being made with only one-fifth of the community's participation. Perhaps this is because we hold these elections in odd-numbered years when there are no statewide elections on the ballot. Or perhaps it's because they lack the intrigue or interest of a gubernatorial or senatorial contest.

Whatever the reason, voters across North Carolina should pay more attention and get more engaged in these local races. Our right to vote is a precious one, and one we should all exercise in every election. Just because you aren't seeing flashy television ads does not mean the race isn't important.

And in fact, candidates for local office are often more accessible than candidates for higher office. Voters can usually get the chance to meet them directly or hear their views firsthand at a candidate forum or other event in the community. This accessibility means it's even easier to find out their opinions on the important issues facing your town or county. When information is that easy to come by, there's even less of an excuse to not cast a ballot.

So hopefully as the General Assembly finishes up its business and people start returning from summer vacations, voters will start paying attention to the important races happening this year in their community. And when it comes time for municipal elections this fall, don't forget to get informed and go vote.


Brent Laurenz is executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping citizens fully participate in democracy.