Contact: Ed Potosnak
O: (609) 331-9922
C: (732) 991-7574
It’s that time of the year again when we are bombarded with information about national elections as candidates try to persuade us to vote for them. Studies show that while people often get energized about national elections they often don’t follow or turn out for local ones. Only one in five voters typically cast their ballot in local races, while one in two participate in the presidential elections. It may be difficult to escape the nonstop media coverage of the presidential campaigns, but let’s take a moment to stop and focus on elections that are taking place here in New Jersey in 2020 where the impact is much closer to home.
New Jersey is divided into 21 counties and contains 565 municipalities consisting of five types: 254 boroughs, 52 cities, 15 towns, 241 townships, and 3 villages. We may have lots of different forms of municipal structures, but they share something very important: they are all led by elected officials who make decisions that affect you and others in your community.
Voting in local elections is an opportunity for you to have a say in how your tax money is spent from education and health care to infrastructure and housing. Altogether, across the United States, local and state governments spend about $3 trillion each year. The people who hold local public office decide taxing and spending in your local schools, whether highways and roads are kept safe, and how public transportation works in your community. Importantly, voting helps decide whether your state or town will be a leader in the fight against the climate crisis, or if you’ll be on the sidelines.
Local elections also let you pick the people who determine your city or town’s daily operations. Local leaders appoint and dismiss key department heads. Together, they address issues including land use and development, housing, job programs or incentives, transportation policies, investment in parks or libraries, and how much of your tax dollars should be used to help the federal government meet its responsibilities on immigration and drugs.
Local leaders hire the people who have the authority to investigate and bring issues to trial, prosecute criminal offenses including making certain offences a lower priority for prosecution, as some have done with low-level drug offenses, like marijuana possession, and make sentencing recommendations. This role is especially important in communities of color, where Black and brown people are often over-policed and can find themselves with criminal records that can damage their lives forever.
One of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that elections have consequences. Most of us agree that the federal response to this crisis has been inadequate, but in the face of this neglect, many local elected officials have stepped up and provided the kind of effective leadership we all need and deserve. Governors from both parties have received high marks for what they’ve done to combat the pandemic, and mayors have played an essential role in figuring out how to keep their communities safe.
This summer we’ve seen an unprecedented number of young people take to the streets demanding social justice and police reforms as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The fight for social change often starts small in local communities, shaping public policy from the ground up. While we wait for the federal government to act, many local communities are already putting policies in place to improve relationships between the police and communities of color.
As a champion for environmental causes, I also know the importance of local elections on issues such as clean water, land use, open space, flooding, and climate mitigation. We’re advocating strongly for the adoption of stormwater utilities that municipalities can establish to manage the negative effects of stormwater runoff, which in New Jersey is responsible for harmful algal blooms hurting our lakes and combined sewer overflows in our towns and cities depositing raw sewage on local streets.
I’m not writing to give you a civics lesson. I want you to realize how important local elections are to your life and the lives of your children and your community. If you really want to have an impact on your community, vote in local elections like your life depends on it, because it does. For more information about how to vote this year visit the usa.gov’s voting website. And remember to vote by returning your ballot early in the mail or to an official ballot return location or going to the polls to cast a paper ballot on Nov. 3.