If you think local politics are dull, you’re not alone, most people do. But Clark County might just change your mind. This year’s local election features a mayoral candidate caught up in a fib, a port commission race tainted with oil money and a candidate for city council who happens to be dead.
The Nov. 7 general election will decide races for city council, the Port of Vancouver commission, school boards, fire district boards and mayor of Vancouver. These races may not seem as important as congressional, senate and presidential races, but local elections matter at least as much.
“Local politics is the most important place to be involved as a voter,” League of Women Voters of Clark County President Judie Stanton said. “There are fewer voters overall so a single vote really can make a difference in the outcome of an election.”
But how many people are actually voting? In August’s primary, Clark County saw a 19.93 percent turnout according to the county’s website. This was consistent with turnout in other non-presidential year local primaries. That’s an absurdly low standard, and we should all do better. And that includes Clark students.
Politicians, whether we like it or not, shape our lives and our communities. They have no incentive to listen to anyone who doesn’t have the voting power to remove them from office. This is a flawed system, but barring large-scale change it is what we’re working with. On a local scale, there is power voting.
This sounds obvious, but with world politics running amok and a president appointed after receiving under 20 percent of Americans votes according to CNN, it’s worth remembering how representative democracy is supposed to work. But this system is a lot like Tinker Bell: the magic only works if people participate.
In Clark County, even though some races have already been virtually decided, drama is running high. By default, the next mayor of Vancouver will be Anne McEnery-Ogle. Her opponent, Steven Cox, dropped out of the race last month after accusing Clark College Trustee and outgoing Vancouver city councilor Jack Burkman of infringing his first amendment rights — at a meeting Burkman did not attend. And Scott Campbell, a candidate for city council, still has a decent chance of winning despite having died on Sept. 17.
According to Stanton, positions like city councilor have a bigger impact than most people realize.
“City councilors decide all sorts of things,” she said. “From whether there are trees in the sidewalks downtown, to what school funding gets levied, to the zoning rules that control what you or your landlord can do with your property, to how many housing units there even are in the city.”
But perhaps the largest impact will be felt in the race for commissioner of the Port of Vancouver. Whoever wins will likely decide the outcome of a years-long effort to build the largest oil terminal in North America on the shore of the Columbia River. Depending on who you ask, the project will either save the local economy by providing jobs, or bankrupt it by investing in a dying fossil fuel industry while destroying air quality and risking dangerous accidents.
The race is between anti-terminal Don Orange, endorsed by Burkman, and pro-terminal Kris Greene, recently endorsed by outgoing Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and has received $225,000 in donations from Vancouver Energy, the company trying to build the terminal.
But if so much is at stake, why don’t more people vote? Washington uses a mail-in ballot system, eliminating much of the time and effort from voting, so why are we still nowhere near the ideal turnout? Stanton said it can come down to details as simple as not having stamps.
“We need to figure out how to make it happen electronically, from home,” Stanton said. “The big struggle with that is how do you keep it secure, make sure it’s just one vote per person and just people who are allowed to vote?”
Electronic voting could raise participation, especially for young voters, but the problem goes deeper. There is a perception of local politics as being time boring and pointless, which alienates young voters, poor voters and especially busy voters. Essentially, students. If we decided to reject that, to pay attention to the seemingly pointless process that determines who controls our city, think of the change we could affect. The easiest way to be heard in this system is by becoming a deciding demographic.
As a journalism student, my studies and my interest in civics are a self-perpetuating cycle, but that’s not enough. this system needs students who feel like they don’t know enough or don’t care enough to look at their ballots anyway. To look up the candidates online or in the voter’s guides available in Cannell Library. And to put that ballot in the mail, or the nearest dropbox, all of which can be found on the Clark County website. It will affect the quality of your air, the availability of jobs, the cost of your rent and the dynamics of your community for years to come.