BY JENNIFER FERRIS Since I moved to North Carolina eight years ago, I have voted in every election in which I was eligible to vote. I’ve voted in snow; I’ve voted with a newborn tied to my chest; I’ve voted after waiting in line for over an hour. From Commissioner of Agriculture to District Judge to President, I voted for them all.
But before I moved to North Carolina, I voted in probably fewer than 20% of elections. And I never, ever voted in municipal races. I marked my ballots for Presidential candidates and then called it a day.
So what changed?
When I moved to Chapel Hill, I started working as a reporter for a local paper. I attended every single meeting of every local elected party as part of my job. I spent Tuesdays with the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and the odd Monday with the Chapel Hill Town Council. And somewhere in between my hundredth public hearing and my thousandth public comment session, I had a realization. While the folks up in Washington do some pretty important work, the decisions that affect me are made by mayors and school board members, by appellate court judges and County Commissioners.
And you know what’s weird? These folks, the ones whose decisions could mean the difference between a hotel on your corner or a playground, they get elected by a tiny minority of their constituents. According to the North Carolina Board of Elections, fewer than 50% of registered voters turn out on non-presidential election years. And municipal elections have an even smaller showing; only 11% of voters cast their ballots in North Carolina’s October 8th elections.
In addition to having the power to add a sidewalk to your commute or increase your taxes, these local officials gain political chops. Most candidates who seek state office and other high positions start in their local towns and boards. When we choose to vote for a town council member we are vetting them for their next position.
And to be honest, I think we need to do a better job creating these leaders. Despite making up more than 50% of registered voters, women make up a paltry 21% of the NC General Assembly. In the United States House of Representatives, North Carolina has 13 members. Only two of those members are women. I don’t think that women automatically make for better leaders, but I do believe our government should reflect its populace.
To achieve equal representation at the state—and even national—level, we need to research our local races, and to participate in any way we can. We must reach out to the leaders we meet in our communities and encourage them to run, and we must consider taking on the mantles of leadership ourselves. And even if it’s tedious, even if our precinct is packed and has terrible parking, we need to cast that ballot each and every time we get the chance.