Political science experts explain why people should care about local politics

Why are local elections so important?

“Your mayor and city council members may have more influence on your daily life than you think. If you have street problems in your area, or trash or bulky items that aren’t being picked up, or traffic lights that need to be installed, your senator or member of Congress probably won’t be able to help, but your city council representative can ” said Raphael Sonnenschein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles and a leading expert who has written three books on Los Angeles politics. “If there is a problem with the local school, the people who can help are the school board members. Local politics often have a bigger daily impact on your life than you realize.”

A respected professor at Cal State Fullerton for decades, Sonnenschein spoke on a recent panel with Jodi Balma, political science professor at Fullerton College and host of the Slice of Orange podcast, about the upcoming election and why people should care about local politics.

“A few weeks ago, my phone just blew up,” Sonnenschein said. “Perhaps you’ve heard of a scandalous recording made by three members of the Los Angeles City Council? The release of this record practically turned the political conversation in Los Angeles on its head. There was so much visibility that I was getting calls from the East Coast and other parts of the world asking me what was going on. I couldn’t even talk about it until a few days later because it was so disturbing. Only now, weeks later, have we turned our attention to the upcoming elections in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“One of the more overlooked aspects of this taped conversation, once you stop listening to the vitriol, is the resistance to generational change,” Sonnenschein said. “The political landscape is changing and many politicians feel very insecure or threatened by the different needs of different groups. The most consistent voters tend to be older white people. In the early voting so far, 77% of those who voted are over 55 years old. But that is starting to change.

“Take the housing market for example. Most older voters own homes and seek stability. Younger voters in Southern California, however, worry that they will never be able to afford a house, so housing affordability is a big deal for them.

“Climate change is also high on the list of things young voters worry about,” he continued. “They worry that the world will change, and not for the better, before they get old. Older voters are more concerned about crime and public safety. If elected officials want to be taken seriously by younger voters, they need to address the needs that these newer voters find important.”

Sonnenschein also added that Asian Americans and Hispanic voters are becoming more active and politically powerful.

Recent polls show that while older whites are still the most likely to vote, Asian Americans are a close second and growing. Latinos, who typically register as Democrats, often shift their votes to Republican candidates they see as more in touch with their concerns.

Each constituency has concerns and is looking for someone to address what they believe are important issues. Politicians who ignore them do so at their own peril.

So why don’t more people vote in local elections?

“We’re pretty good at registering voters, but we’re not so good at explaining why it’s important,” Sonnenschein said. “We need to put more energy into educating people why their voice matters. We are on a knife’s edge in choosing democracy or an autocratic political system. The fact is, if you don’t vote, there may come a time when you won’t be able to choose between candidates.

Balma suggested voters look to sites like votersedge.org/ca to find more specific information…and also to see who is supporting different candidates.

“Follow the money,” she advised. “And look for ‘spoiler’ candidates – some companies will add another candidate to the mix to siphon votes away from the candidate they don’t want to win.”

She held up a stack of new flyers sent by various candidates.

“Some of them are funny,” she said. “Lovely photo of a candidate running next to a photo of a scowling opponent. Crazy accusations, words taken out of context… these are ways to make voters believe the opposing candidate is terrible. See who supports the candidate. Or better yet, go to a trusted resource.”

Here are some of Balma’s recommendations:

Both participants advised people to get involved in local elections and local politics. Elected officials often appoint people to committees to study specific issues.

“Once you get involved, you can be part of the solution to the problems we face,” Balma said.

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