Local Elections – Make Your Voice Heard

By Jessica Shepherd

Democracy functions when people make their voices heard and are involved in the decision-making process.

Election day in Alaska is Tuesday, October 5th. In years past, I confess, I often didn’t bother to drive the eight miles to my poling precinct for local elections. I live outside city limits, so I can’t vote for city council members, and I didn’t pay much attention to school board issues, borough government posts, or ballot measures.  When I did vote on local issues, I puzzled over propositions and initiatives written in convoluted legalese, and skipped past the names of judges, figuring I didn’t know anything about them. And anyway, how bad could they be?

But times have changed. Democracy is on shaky ground, with increased voter suppression, blatant gerrymandering, purging of registered voters, fake news, and spiteful recalls. Take California’s costly recall attempt to oust Governor Newsom because he “imposed sanctuary state status,” proposed water rationing (did recall proponents not get the message that the state is in a megadrought?), and sought to increase taxes. His imprudent failure to wear a mask at an upscale restaurant in November of last year, after the petition to recall him was initiated, only fueled the opposition.  Closer to home, Homer council members were subjected to a 2017 recall election and prevailed after they dared to sponsor a resolution to designate Homer as a sanctuary city. In essence, it is now legal in 19 states to initiate a recall process because you disagree with someone’s beliefs. Add to that increased threats of violence at city council meetings, hostile school board meetings, and funding from outside interests like the Koch Brothers. Then there’s the recent Texas abortion law straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale – proof positive that judges aren’t always impartial and apolitical.

If level-headed people don’t prevail, this country will further succumb to hate-mongering and anarchy, with no plan other than every man for himself. Case in point, in May of this year, newly-elected Anchorage Mayor David Bronson (a Republican) won a run-off election by just 1.3 percent or 1,194 votes, against Forrest Dunbar in an election with just 30% voter turnout. He recently stated that the municipality of Anchorage won’t comply with President Biden’s Covid-19 vaccine mandates (i.e. for businesses with more than 100 employees) and that he won’t institute mask mandates. He then went on to say, despite pleas from hospital staff coping with record Covid hospitalizations, a dwindling number of ventilators, and now, the highest covid case rate in the nation, “I don’t know what more we can do.”   

During national elections, the results have already been announced before Alaska’s votes are even tallied, so local voting gives us a voice national elections never will. And because turnout for local elections is much lower on years when we aren’t voting for president or members of congress, our individual vote makes a meaningful difference on issues most relative to the quality of life in the communities in which we live. In a small town like Homer, a handful of votes can win or lose a bid for city council or the school board, setting the tone for years to come.

Local elections are the testing ground for people who then climb the political ladder. Consider Sarah Palin’s rise from a member of the Wasilla City Council in 1992 to Mayor of Wasilla in 1996 (population 5,000) to Governor of Alaska in 2006, before being nominated for vice president by Republican candidate John McCain in 2008. As governor, she was a moderate Republican, progressive even in her establishment of a climate change sub-cabinet charged “with preparing and implementing an Alaskan Climate Change Strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and responding to the effects of climate change”. All of that changed when she entered the national spotlight and swung to the far right, decrying climate change and leading the “drill baby drill” battle cry during the Republican national convention. Palin’s lack of experience was overlooked because she parroted the alt-right ideology on abortion, resource extraction, government downsizing, and claims that universal health care would result in “death panels.” Her rise to a position that could have put her one heartbeat away from becoming president of this country demonstrates why local elections lay the groundwork for national movements. When people like Palin, charismatic and power-hungry, help move the country toward the alt-right because of ideology rather than science and logic, we lose ground that, given the urgency of climate change, we will never regain.

After watching what’s happened in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and Texas, I no longer take my voting rights for granted. New laws in numerous states restrict voter registration by requiring proof of citizenship (such as a passport or birth certificate), limit the window of time in which voters can register, make voter registration drives less successful, and limit or eliminate early voting or voting by mail. These restrictions, in addition to purging voting records, disproportionately affect people of color, those with disabilities, students, the elderly, and those without ready access to transportation and/or child care.

It’s encouraging to note that at least 25 states have recently ratified laws expanding voting access. These laws are, for the most part, enacted in states where voting was already easily accessible, “deepening a national divide such that the promise of the right to vote depends increasingly on where Americans happen to live.”  

Democracy functions when people make their voices heard and are involved in the decision-making process. With funding still trickling into city coffers from national Covid-relief efforts, our city officials will be making decisions about roads, green energy, and other critical infrastructure. Use your vote to elect officials who will direct those dollars where they are most needed.

Now I vote in every election. I do my homework and read up in advance on every candidate – making sure I don’t contribute to an insidious effort underway by those on the far right to stifle collective decision-making and restrict our rights on everything from a woman’s right to choose, to what we teach our children about America’s past and present racial transgressions.

My advice, as elections draw near, is to check your voter registration status online in case you are one of hundreds of thousands of people whose records have been purged.  Make sure you know where your polling location is, as many cities have consolidated polling sites. Become familiar with who and what is on the ballot. Ballotpedia, a national database, is a good starting point. Then vote every chance you get. You’ll be informed and feel more empowered, regardless of the outcome. That’s something to feel good about.