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California Counts: Local Elections Yield Results But Receive Few Votes

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Photo by Associated Press

Poll worker Melanie Withey attaches "I voted" stickers to a box at a polling station on election day in San Diego, June 8, 2010.

Presidential elections receive by far the most attention, but it’s also the race where individual voters have the least direct effect. The undercard races for local offices, such as city council and board of supervisors, offer the greatest opportunity for residents to exert influence and directly engage with elected officials, yet they receive some of the least attention, engagement and votes.

Special Feature California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Will Cannady recalls his first success influencing local government. Cannady is a high school history teacher in the Pocket neighborhood of Sacramento.

“The bus stop for our school site was about a mile away,” he said. “Not only did students have to walk, but there was no shelter for them. They'd go onto people's property and hide under a plum tree.”

As he tells it, the school district told him he needed to talk to the city.

“I put together a petition, got our councilman involved, too,” he said. “And sure enough, they moved the bus stop.”

While he said the accomplishment is modest, Cannady credits it with mobilizing him to become more involved with local issues in his community. He now runs neighborhood meetings and recently organized coffee with a leading mayoral candidate.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

A bicyclist rides along a public levee in the Pocket neighborhood of Sacramento, Feb. 11, 2016. Will Cannady, who lives in the neighborhood, is pushing for the city to buy privately owned land along the Sacramento River to complete a new bike trail.

Day-to-day concerns

A mile east of the Pocket, in the Meadowview neighborhood, Darryl Lucien has a problem with a bare plot of city-owned land.

He said it reinforces a narrative of blight and decay in this low-income community.

“It’s full of weeds, and trash, and debris,” Lucien said. “Every now and then I have to call 311 and report the city, so they can clean up their mess.”

Lucien works for a state assemblyman, but he says city and county officials often play a more direct role in our day-to-day lives.

“I mean, these are the people who are responsible for just your quality of life, making sure that your neighborhoods are clean, your roads are paved, police services, and making sure response times are good,” Lucien said.

They can also influence state and federal actions, said Mike Madrid, a principal at the political consulting firm GrassrootsLab. Madrid mentions a ban on plastic bags.

“It was getting no traction in the state Legislature for eight years,” he said. “Local governments were taking policy positions that effectively forced the hand of the Legislature to act.”

Madrid said state marijuana, firearm and smoking laws all started at the local level.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Darryl Lucien says this undeveloped, city-owned field in Sacramento's Meadowview neighborhood is often "full of weeds, and trash, and debris, March 14, 2016. "Every now and then I have to call 311 and report the city to the city, so they can clean up their mess," he says.

Voting power is local

Each vote cast in a local race also has a larger statistical effect than in larger races. A vote in a district of 10,000 will play a larger role in the outcome than one in a statewide race of 40 million.

“You, by nature, have more impact,” Madrid said.

But voters turn out for local elections at dismal rates, on average half that of national races, according to a 2003 UC San Diego study. In cities that hold races in off-years, without federal elections, turnout can reach single digits.

Sacramento City Councilman Larry Carr represents Meadowview and acknowledges the disinterest.

“It’s way down-ticket,” Carr said. “Less money is spent on those campaigns, very little TV advertising because it’s just not cost-effective for the size of the districts. And so, it’s more difficult for people to get interested in.”

Face-to-face interaction

While local elections typically draw little interest and few votes, these elected officials are often the most directly accessible to their constituents because they generally represent fewer people and live in the neighborhoods they represent.

On a recent Saturday morning, Carr, who is not up for election this year, holds a public meeting at the community center in Meadowview.

About two dozen residents, mostly community and neighborhood association leaders, are attending.

“What we did in the first meeting was essentially ask the community, ‘What do you want me to do, now that you’ve elected me?’” Carr said. “We had this whole room filled with butcher paper with things you wanted me to do. We narrowed it down to a few things. And we’re going to tell you about some of those things.”

He touted his accomplishments, and the meeting also gave residents a forum to air their concerns. They sat at round, fold-out tables and discussed their desire for more jobs, better roads, community art and cleaner blocks.

Charlotte Coron mentions a continued need for afterschool programs.

“Detroit Boulevard area, we don’t really have much there at all,” Coron said, to nods around her table.

Charles Boykins is skeptical his voice will be heard. It’s his first time attending one of these meetings.

“Honestly, I think a lot of it is just show,” Boykins said. “We talk, we do little things, but next year we’ll be here at the same time, talking about the same stuff.”

But B.J. Barrett said the community input makes a difference.

“He [Carr] comes and he asks,” Barrett said. “If this is something that’s high on the priority list of his constituents, he tackles it.”

Except on the most controversial topics, only a small minority of constituents reach out to their local officials. In 2014, the National Research Center found fewer than one in five Americans contact their local elected officials. Those who do are typically older, wealthier and have lived in the neighborhood longer.

In these local elections, where citizens have the most opportunity to influence their elected officials — both directly and at the ballot box — few actually use it.

Copyright 2015 Capital Public Radio. To see more election coverage, visit

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California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio. Our coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

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