Why local races matter to the 2020 general elections

Photo of Old City Hall
Jenna Wong/File

“I don’t like Biden or Trump, so I’m not voting” is a sentence a lot of people have said this election cycle — but there’s a lot more than the presidential ticket on the ballot, and local elections matter now more than ever.

Often receiving less news coverage and public engagement, local elections in recent decades have seen lower voter turnout nationally; off-cycle elections have typically lagged between 10% and 20% behind general elections. However, local elections, both in Berkeley and beyond, matter a lot more than people think; for example, Berkeley voters are responsible for choosing leadership in governing bodies such as the school board, local public transportation boards and the rent board, whose members can address the ongoing housing crisis.

When the federal government fails to do so, state and local governments often lead the way in passing progressive legislation that directly affects people’s lives.

This year, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the federal government abdicated many responsibilities traditionally held both in times of crisis and under normal circumstances, forcing local governments to step in. Because they cover a smaller constituency, local governments have more room to operate and pass legislation that more accurately reflects the values of the community.

As climate change continues to affect the state of California, environmental legislation has become increasingly important. On Jan. 22, 2019, Berkeley City Council unanimously passed the Single Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance to assist businesses with the shift toward reusable foodware.

This ordinance, which was the first of its kind in the country, has allowed Berkeley’s businesses to limit the amount of landfill waste that is being produced despite the pandemic framing reusables as “unsanitary.” As businesses in other areas reverted back to styrofoam and plastic containers that would go to the landfill, Berkeley to-go food is at least getting packed in compostable containers.

Though we don’t often hear about state and local races on cable news or see them trending on Twitter, local politics have a long history of shaping national, long-term change, and it is where many landmark federal policies begin.

Another public sector in which local elections make a drastic difference is public transportation. In Alameda County, AC Transit is facing service cuts of up to 30% because of the pandemic. This especially hurts those who rely heavily on public transportation, including students, seniors, people with disabilities and low-income individuals.

The people who are elected to the AC Transit Board of Directors this election cycle will not only have significant implications for union transit jobs and conditions for essential workers, but they will also affect how well the public bus service runs for its riders.

For example, AC Transit Board of Directors Ward 1 candidate Ben Fong wants to invest in electric buses, while Jovanka Beckles, who is running for the same position, wants to move toward zero emissions as part of a local Green New Deal. Victoria Fierce, who is running for the board’s at-large seat, aims to increase investment in community bike-share programs.

Ultimately, public transportation legislation is inextricably linked with housing and where people are living in the community. The rent board should exist to protect tenants and provide housing stability for residents, especially seniors, families, low-income people and students who graduate and want to stay.

Rising unemployment and financial crises during the shelter-in-place orders also unearthed the importance of housing legislation at the local level and having pro-tenant representatives.

On March 17, one day after the shelter-in-place order went into effect, Berkeley City Council adopted the COVID-19 Emergency Response Ordinance to prohibit evictions of tenants unable to pay rent due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic.

The quick action of the City Council in passing the eviction moratorium created a huge difference for tenants in Berkeley, highlighting the importance of local elections and how we should vote for candidates who not only can react effectively but are also in touch with the community and its needs, especially in times of crisis.

These issues — declining ridership in public transportation, rising homelessness, climate change — have been plaguing our communities for years, and people too often turn to the federal government to solve them. In reality, change is much more viable at the grassroots level, where Americans are able to attend board meetings, provide public comment, serve on advisory boards and contact officials who are more likely to respond to their needs.

In the current political moment, in which the parties are often gridlocked and polarized at the federal level, local politics has become more important than ever: When you turn in your ballot, you aren’t just voting for the president of the United States; you’re also voting for candidates whom you believe will implement effective policy in your community.

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected].