By Eliyahu Solomon, Staff Writer
I cannot remember who I voted for during this year’s midterm elections. Just a few weeks ago, I filled out my choices for California Governor, Senator, my district’s Representative, and Los Angeles Mayor – which was a particularly contentious race this cycle. Once I got passed the first two pages, I was met with a large list of candidates for judges, sheriffs, education boards, comptrollers, and a whole slew of local positions I cannot say I knew too much about. I did my best to fill them out, but as soon as I finished and dropped off my ballot I had already forgotten who I chose to represent me in government.
I can imagine many Americans across the country had similar experiences. We filled out our ballots, many of which contained races that were non-competitive, and then, if we were still interested at this point, went to CNN, Fox, or wherever we get our news to watch the returns from Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.
This should not be the case. Races in battleground states, while they do affect the balance of power in Congress, have far less of an impact on our daily lives than elections that occur in our own cities or districts. National politics dominate the news cycles, the conversations we have at our dinner tables, and the voting patterns across the country, while local politics remains an afterthought. The average turnout for mayoral elections is under 30% in most major US cities, with particularly low turnout for both young and non-wealthy voters. causing an imbalance in representation. When it comes to local government meetings, this disparity is even worse, leading to large sections of the population, namely poorer, younger, and minority citizens, being underrepresented at the local level.
While this disparity affects every aspect of local politics, it has had particularly heavy consequences in zoning and development. Zoning codes in the United States vary by city but typically are a complex record of decades-old rules and regulations. Most US cities have zoning codes that only allow for single-family homes, meaning no commercial, mixed-use, or “missing middle” housing can be built. This causes a phenomenon known as “sprawl,” where large residential neighborhoods consist solely of detached single-family homes, and limited public or commercial spaces, causing its residents to rely solely on cars for transportation. When a city relies almost entirely on cars, traffic goes up, more money gets spent on infrastructure for roads (which, unlike other types of infrastructure, does not return much of the investment), and other dangers that come with car dependency are prevalent. In the United States, nearly 67% of space is reserved for single-family development, stifling the growth of many neighborhoods while simultaneously contributing to rising housing costs.
More minority, poor, and youth votes would not just help us reach greater democratic participation, but it would lead to more balanced zoning codes. While older and richer Americans do not benefit from increased traffic or car dependency, they have the resources to offset some of the downsides that come with it, and their priorities are distinct from those less fortunate. For less wealthy people, living in car-dependent communities usually means taking underfunded public transportation, or shelling out hundreds of dollars a month for car payments, insurance, gas, and repairs. Even more so, when the only option to live in a specific neighborhood is by owning or renting a single-family home, there is a tendency for neighborhoods to become segregated, with the more wealthy Americans living in the area with more development than those on the other side of town.
Zoning is a city-wide process that requires the input of citizens. When one group is overrepresented or underrepresented, it leads to inequitable outcomes in which the loudest voices have the final say, regardless of the majority’s desire. No city best exemplifies this than Austin, Texas.
Austin is the typical car-dependent American city. Most of its map is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, resulting in high traffic congestion and an increase in housing costs for one of the more highly-sought after cities. In an attempt to fix this problem, the city council proposed a restructuring of the zoning and development code, CodeNEXT, that would allow for higher-density housing in certain areas of Austin.
Over the next decade, the citizens of Austin fought amongst themselves regarding this new development code. Those opposed to development, colloquially known as “NIMBYs,” were worried about the change to the character of the neighborhood while those in favor of the code saw its benefits in terms of lower housing costs, increased “walkability” of Austin’s neighborhoods, and a greater sense of community that comes with increased housing density. In the end, those opposed to CodeNEXT won, largely in part to the many organizations that formed in the wake of the announcement of the code. Community Not Commodity was one of the groups that formed in opposition to the code and provided resources to aid those in fighting against the development. On the pro-development side, however, no such group formed, and the primary voice in favor of CodeNEXT was the Austin mayor who was unable to drum up enough support.
Local politics is very much an active game where those who organize, vote, and are generally active reap the rewards. An issue like zoning is not one that would come up regularly in a news segment, and it is unlikely that anyone would have strong opinions on the topic as they do for more contentious issues. Yet zoning is just one of the many issues of local politics that affect our day-to-day lives. Other issues such as taxes, local infrastructure, city safety, business regulations, and even budget allocation are all issues that we interact with on a daily basis. These decisions are not made in Washington DC, but in city hall, where the people who make the decision are elected by only a fraction of the population. To build a more equitable city, there must be high levels of political participation, something which just does not exist in local politics.
To this end, there is always the question of how we get more people active in this process. One potential solution, and one that many US cities have already made significant strides in, is to promote easier voting. Whether this is done by mail-in or drop-off voting, increasing voting periods to a week instead of one day, or opening more polling places to ease line wait times, increasing access to the ballot would certainly increase voter turnout. Additionally, an increase in the volume of local news sources would help provide context to many people who have their attention focused on national politics.
While the flashiness and the stature of local politics do not match those on the national level, local politics are far more consequential and more directly determine the way you live your everyday life. The most important decisions in your daily life are being made regularly. You should probably know by whom.