Even at the state level, in Rhode Island, there isn’t but so much debate about major issues, like massive new debt proposals on the ballot. At the local level, it’s even worse. Trying to remedy some of this in my town, I’ve been writing a Daily Tiverton Truth Flash (well, almost daily) on Tiverton Fact Check for about a week, and the related Facebook page has had some great exchanges, but even this feels insufficient, not the least because there doesn’t appear to be anything comparable from the opposing side.
This is indicative of a broad problem in our representative democracy. Our government is (or is supposed to be) structured so that the most important decisions affecting people’s lives are made at the most-local level possible. But involvement in local government is no longer the important source of personal entertainment that it used to be, and mass media means that the most money and promotion will be devoted to national topics. One of the Daily Tiverton Truth Flash posts took up this very problem:
… the story of voter participation in Tiverton follows a clear pattern: People like to vote in high-profile elections in which their votes count for the less. Looking at data from the state Board of Elections, when the presidential race is on the ballot, Tiverton voters turn out in the mid-60% range. In off years, turnout drops to the mid-40% range. By contrast, the last two competitive FTRs [financial town referendums] saw turnout of just over 20%.
However, low interest in local government can be seen during regular elections, too. Taking into account that voters get seven votes for council, the effective participation in that contest has tended to be around 40% during presidential years and around 30% during non-presidential years. In 2014, the council race had effective turnout of 27.5%, and the 2015 FTR the following May hit 20.5%. That’s a difference, but it isn’t huge, especially considering that the 7% gap contains people who might not follow local government very closely.
This is a problem we don’t see many people trying to solve… because of the very same lack of interest. Local government is involved in so many things that it takes a lot of work to keep up, and special interests, like labor unions, have incentive to make too much involvement painful for anybody who isn’t advocating on their behalf.