Bright: Let’s look at state and local elections with 2020 vision

Zach Bright, Assistant Opinion Editor

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Even after months of mind-numbing campaigning for the presidency and other congressional seats, we’re just under a year out from the 2020 presidential election.

Meanwhile, a slew of consequential state and local elections were held Tuesday in states including Kentucky, Virginia, Louisiana and Mississippi. After Tuesday’s results, a constitutional amendment on equal rights is now poised to pass, and traditionally Republican Kentucky has elected a Democratic governor. However, leading up to these elections, the more distant presidential contest has taken up a majority of the media’s attention when it comes to coverage.

While offices like governor, state senator and county commissioner are certainly not equivalent to big-ticket positions like the presidency itself, down-ballot seats have the potential to be just as consequential to the constituents of states and localities that are holding elections.

Remember earlier in the spring when the right to an abortion was under attack by several states?

These laws were passed by state representatives, senators, and ultimately signed by governors who were all elected in state, not national, elections. Residents of states like Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and more experienced this severe tightening of restrictions because of who was representing them. Although such legislation was overturned by courts, it would never have gone into law had voters elected officials who actually represent their interests.

Local elected officials are the ones who make the decisions that most directly impact their immediate area. Take a body like the school board. They are usually elected to determine educational policy in a district. They have a significant purview over an area’s public education system. My local school board decides on how funding should be distributed to schools and what services they are allocated for along with the standards of learning that are required of teachers and students. Those who win in these elections determine what direction schools across the district will take, for good or for worse.

The impact can be national as well. For instance, in this Tuesday’s election, Democrats flipped Virginia’s State Senate and House of Delegates. With this new control, the state would be poised to become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the last needed for it to become a Constitutional amendment. As a consequence, equal legal status would officially be granted to women across the country.

The problem is that school boards and state legislatures are low or nonexistent on the list of people’s political concerns.

The issue is presidential elections have a tendency to overshadow the boxes on the ballot that fall below it. Voters are too busy to concern themselves with what appears to be less meaningful positions.

Another big reason why American voters tend to care less about state and local elections is that there simply is far less coverage of them. According to the Pew Research Center, there were just under 1,600 reporters assigned to the 50 statehouses across the United States in 2014. Compare this to the roughly 6,800 news personnel that have at least one person covering Congress for their publication.

Yes, the Capitol and White House are clearly important, but so far, the 116th Congress has put just 66 bills into law. The proportion of coverage both branches receive compared to the meager amounts of legislation that comes out of DC is mind-boggling. Local government is covered to a lesser extent — if it is even covered at all. Consolidation of local news networks has fueled a nationalization of local media. Companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group snap up teetering local stations and involve themselves in the content put out by their newsrooms.

As we continue going forward into the 2020 election, voters need to remember that it is not just the presidency that is important. If we are more cognizant of our local- and state-level officials and hold them accountable while supporting the efforts of local media, lower levels of government can rise up on people’s agendas. Ultimately, these are the offices that will be the voice of our friends, our families and our communities that we should bear in mind when casting a ballot.

Zach Bright is a Medill Sophomore. They can be contacted at zacharybright2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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