September 11, 2013

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: 2013: An Election Year

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When those of us on the executive board of the Cornell Democrats were planning for this semester, I made a dumb comment (not an unusual occurrence for me). I said that I wish it were an election year because campaigning is such a fun part of the being in the Dems. Our Director of Public Relations corrected me, saying that it was, in fact, an election year. At first, I thought he said this because we are already preparing for the 2014 midterm elections, but he meant that in New York, and many other states across the country, off-years are the time for county and municipal elections (not to mention state-wide elections in New Jersey and Virginia). So, in a sense,  I was right: It’s not an election year for the Cornell Dems … unless were to have any members from New York, New Jersey, Boston or Atlanta. Like I said, dumb comments: not an unusual occurrence for me.

Unfortunately, I think most Cornell students fall into my camp when it comes to forgetting that 2013 is an election year. How many of us realized that Tuesday was primary election day in New York? Unless you saw coverage of the New York mayoral election you might have missed that the first, and in many cases the only important, part of this election occurred on Tuesday. In many places, including Ithaca and New York City, one party has such an overwhelming dominance that the primary election is enough to determine who will probably win the election. In short, the most populous city in America probably just selected it’s next mayor, the county in which you go to college may have just selected its next County Judge and many of your home counties and towns just nominated officials to various other positions. Odds are, it happened without you.

While turnout in American elections is much maligned and is poor when contrasted with other Western democracies, it’s actually been rising since the turn of the century. That said, voting in non-presidential elections is probably still worse than you think. Virginia, a state where the governor is up for election in off years, has seen the number of eligible voters who turnout drop to three-in-ten compared to seven-in-ten during Presidential election years. States like New York, where citizens are voting for county officials and judges, can expect even less enthusiasm.

At this point, you’re probably asking why you should care. Sure, you understand why the New York City Mayoral race matters, but who knows what the county executive, common council member, first selectman, general assembly member or county clerk even does? Well, to the question of why you should care, I have two answers.

Even though you know President Barack Obama’s name and don’t know your county legislator’s unless she lives next door, local and state laws are the ones that actually govern your life. Most of the taxes you’ll pay, the school regulations you follow and laws that affect your life are passed at the state level or below. Congress may get to deal with the sexier issues such as Syria, healthcare reform and renaming post offices, but members of the Ithaca Common Council are the ones who can protect you from your Collegetown slumlord or regulate the Hot Truck’s hours. Failing to engage in or, at the very least, follow local-level politics keeps your voice from being heard by the officials who affect your life most often.

The second reason local politics matters is because as much as you might think you’re voting for the person who is going to fix potholes, national agendas often start at the local level. It is much easier to organize for and affect local elections which means they are the place to get good public officials into office and keep potentially dangerous ones out. Many of the politicians who gain national fame start out by winning local elections by a few dozen votes. People in New York found out that the election for county clerk mattered when several clerks tried to deny gay marriage licenses. Conversely, maybe that state legislator you support will eventually rise to the presidency, like President Obama did. Your small, local election has ripples that extend far beyond your trash collection and sales tax.

If you ever hear somebody at Cornell say: “It’s not an election year,” I hope you tell them that they should check again. Furthermore, if you are a New York, New Jersey or Virginia resident: Please register to vote in the general election and apply for your absentee ballot today!  After all, it is an election year.

Max Schechter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the president of the Cornell Democrats. He may be reached at [email protected] Dems Discuss appears alternate Thursdays this semester.