Next Tuesday, November 7, is an Election Day. For us here in New York City, it’s very much an off-year election, with City Council seats, judgeships, and two propositions on the ballot. Turnout is expected to be very light.
In other places, issues are more significant. In Ohio, there’s a proposition for reproductive rights, and abortion access is a top issue in Virginia’s state legislative elections. These are examples of cases in which local and state elections can have a greater impact on everyday life than national ones. We tend to focus on the national-level elections — it’s no coincidence that the highest turnout occurs in presidential election years — but ignoring elections for mayor, state legislatures, and, yes, school boards can lead to much greater limitations on our lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness.
What this means is that no election is too small. Low turnout elections facilitate the rise of stealth extremist candidates who use their power to create an unlevel playing field for future elections. Gerrymandering is a perfect example of this. Wisconsin, the state where I used to live, is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. However, the Republicans have a 2/3 majority of the state legislature, the result of a gerrymandering put into place after the 2010 election that has basically installed the party’s permanent rule. These legislators are currently seeking to remove a State Supreme Court judge elected by a double-digit margin because the court now has a majority to strike down the unfair districts. This would essentially overturn a statewide election because the legislature disapproved of its outcome.
School board elections are another example of what can happen when voters are caught napping and extremists get in. Across the country school boards are banning individual books or in some cases taking away all the books because it’s too much trouble to read and consider them one by one. An extremist school board can create an unsafe learning environment for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled students by excluding books that reflect their experiences, excluding the kids themselves from activities, and abetting bullies tacitly or openly. After all, it’s the school board that appoints the administrators, the “referees” who can make a misfit or marginalized child’s life a living hell.
I choose to vote in what appear to be low-stakes off-year elections in large part to get into the habit of voting. It’s important to get into that habit, to vote in every election that comes along — and to make sure to have enough information for an informed decision. When I go to the polls, I thank the election workers for being there, because we don’t really know how long we’ll have the privilege of voting in elections that are still free if not always completely fair. At this point, a majority of the world’s population lacks this privilege. Democracy isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than the alternative. One only needs to look to China, where more than a million Uyghurs have endured harsh reeducation camps, or Russia, where a mad despot’s war has sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives and driven millions into exile.
I have two historical novels featuring teens living under dictatorships where voting is not a possibility, and a third where he’s in exile, in a foreign country while his father is perhaps dying in prison back home. Readers see how these political conditions have constrained my characters’ lives. Not taking advantage of the rights we do have is a good way to lose those rights, with all the consequences of living under a government — national or local — that’s not accountable to its people and can do anything it wants to those people. In other words, a government that will do nothing for you, but will do everything to you.