Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Understanding and Fixing Low Voter Turnout in Local Elections

On November 8, 2005, Kootenai County, Idaho, held a special election. According to the county's voter turnout figures, 13,543 people voted. That represents 21.42 percent of the county's registered voters. This low turnout was disappointing but not particularly surprising. Local elections, even when there are truly important issues and interesting candidates, typically have lower turnouts than national elections.

Low voter turnout in local elections is attributable partly to the upside-down way government is taught in primary and secondary schools.

Primary and secondary education classes teach government almost exclusively from a federal perspective. Students are taught Jefferson's, "The first principle of a good government is certainly a distribution of its powers into executive, judiciary, and legislative, and a subdivision of the latter into two or three branches." They are taught that the US Constitution is the foundation for all our laws and that the US Supreme Court is the supreme adjudicator of differences of law. Rarely do the classes spend much if any time on the structure and function of their local governments and on the importance and formulation of local codes and ordinances. Primary and secondary students are not exposed to the local financial planning process where they could learn the intricacies and realities of how their city and county are funded. The federal system is not a bad example, just one too distant and large for primary and secondary students to apply practically in their daily living.

Students need to learn government from a local perspective. For example, do Coeur d'Alene students learn why someone can't build a commercial auto repair facility in that vacant lot right next to their house in an R-8 zone? Do they know how to research and obey the ordinances that regulate the business they wish to start in Coeur d'Alene after they graduate? Are Coeur d'Alene students required to learn how to follow the progress of a proposed city ordinance from inception to enactment? Are they encouraged to attend city commission and council meetings and to speak out when appropriate? Are Coeur d'Alene students required to understand how to read and understand the city's annual financial plan so they understand how their or their parents' tax dollars are spent?

Using the federal system as a teaching example is a contributor to low voter turnout in local elections. This "focus on the top" subtly suggests to students that federal government is more relevant than local government. Federal laws are important, local ordinances are unimportant. Federal elections are important, local elections are unimportant. Though the effects of national elections and federal court decisions may be more widespread and affect more people across the nation, I'd argue that our day to day lives are influenced more directly and frequently not by national issues but by local ones. Yet how comprehensively are students in Kootenai County primary and secondary schools taught about their specific county and city governments? Students may know the name of the US Attorney General, but do they know the names of their city and county attorneys? They may know the names of their US Senators and Representatives, but do they know the names of their city council members and county commissioners?

It is at the local level that students and their parents can exert the greatest influence on government affecting their daily lives. At the local level, every citizen has a proportionally stronger and potentially more influential voice. We can research the facts behind local issues, attend legislative and quasi-judicial meetings and hearings, and present our position directly to the decision-makers. Citizens who understand and have been involved in their local government processes are much more likely to vote in local elections rather than ignore them.

I would simply suggest that the Kootenai County school systems be encouraged to teach students the in's and out's of city and Kootenai County government. Teach the students about local government at a functional, practical, user-friendly level, not exclusively at a theoretical, national level couched in federalism. Teach the students how to understand and participate in their local governments first, and then encourage them to get involved with them. Teach students advocacy skills. The National Crime Prevention Council has two helpful advocacy webpages. The first is Seven Steps to Effective Advocacy. The second is Contacting Legislators: Do's and Don'ts.

When schools start teaching local government as participation courses, I suspect the voter turnout in both local and national elections will increase. The students who learn, understand, and become involved in the processes of local government today will be better informed and more consistent voters tomorrow.


Blogger Mr Ornery said...

Very interesting and on target. Unfortunately, I believe you could go anywhere in the United States and say the same. Students in my former home town in New York State learned about federal and state government, but nothing about county or community government. The only time anyone seemed to care anything about local government was after a heavy rain, when residential street storm drains clogged up and that sort of thing. I do believe this is an idea way overdue and well worth implementing in school systems everywhere.

5:39 PM, November 24, 2005  
Blogger Bill McCrory said...

Mr. Ornery,

Thank you for commenting. I completely agree that undereducating primary and secondary school students about local government is a nationwide issue. Your example of the clogged drains is a perfect example of how local government affects our lives daily. Thanks again.

6:24 PM, November 24, 2005  
Anonymous stebbio said...

I agree as well. The other day I was talking to a young girl who was not even aware that she needed to file taxes until after she graduated form high school - which BTW should be an entire semester course.

I told her if I had to do it all over again, I would be a paralegal -- that way I would have the 'survival' education I needed, in order to avoid the pitfalls of naivety.

10:57 AM, November 26, 2005  

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