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Make politics local again!

Scot Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth

Scot Oliver

Why vote? Why bother, especially in “odd-year” elections like this one, when local candidates and issues are the only items on the ballot? People used to say, “All politics is local,” but in fact, voting participation rates keep dropping, especially in odd-year elections. Have we forgotten why local elections matter?

People have reason to be discouraged by politics in general. At the national level, politics is fueled by news media, political spending, social media feedback and nonstop campaigning. It absorbs our attention because, let’s face it, it’s entertaining. The production values are high. We’re encouraged to take sides and be outraged. Local issues just can’t compete.

Yet in Idaho, the local elections are the ones most likely to affect our daily lives. Who’s going to be our mayor and council, our fire commissioners or school board members? Are we going to invest in local schools, libraries and other institutions? Are we going to recall some yahoos from office, or vote to show other yahoos that their disruptions are not welcome? Are we going to be a community that our children will want to live in?

Citizen engagement in local politics varies around the state, along with what’s on the ballot. In many towns this year, there are uncontested candidates, and in some races there are no candidates at all. It may be that everything is peachy-keen in those places. Or maybe public office there is so uninviting that no one will run. You could be forgiven for thinking your vote doesn’t matter.

In other towns, there are vigorous campaigns underway. Boise, for example, has seven candidates for mayor, multiple candidates for each of three council seats and two ballot initiatives related to large public projects. Meridian, Idaho’s second largest city, also has multiple candidates for mayor and some council seats. Much of this interest is no doubt due to the enormous pressure that rapid population growth and development are exerting on these communities. In these towns, the election is attracting more attention.

No matter what your particular ballot looks like, it’s important that you vote. Voting is critical to building a community, but it doesn’t end there. It takes some effort. It’s important that your vote be informed and that you do your own homework. If there are a lot of candidates, it’s a little more work to sort through them all. If there are few or no candidates, maybe the work needs to be in organizing and recruitment. Either way, it’s important to shut out the national furor and focus on the local. A habit of voting, even in the odd years, leads to a habit of local engagement, which in turn leads to a healthier community.

Voting is unquestionably a smart growth activity; it’s part of all the principles of smart growth. Voting is needed to “foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.” Voting can help “preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas.” Voting can provide a variety of housing and transportation choices, a mix of land uses and walkable neighborhoods. Robust community and stakeholder collaboration requires voting.

Voting is an exercise in democracy. Like any exercise, it needs to be repeated before you get stronger. If we start out first at the local level, maybe we can build up to improving politics at the state and national levels. It’s worth the effort.

Scot Oliver is executive director of Idaho Smart Growth, a statewide nonprofit that works with people to build stronger, healthier communities.

About Scot Oliver