Midterm elections are coming up on Tuesday November 6! If you are eligible to vote in the US I hope you are planning to do so. On the federal level every member of the House of Representatives is up for reelection and one third of Senate. However I’m not here to talk about national politics. This is planning blog so I want to talk about the elections that most directly impact the built environment — local elections! Remember your local planning decisions can affect all kinds of things; for example how well your community will be able to adapt to climate change, how hard will it be for kids to get to school and how will that burden be distributed, will there be good places for communities to hang out in public, and will there be more small local businesses or more large national corporations. What we build and where we build it is a reflection of our values, so if you are interested in making your city fairer for everyone, protecting your local environment or making housing more affordable you should vote in local elections.
City councils have the power to make zoning codes and adopt general plans. These are the base rules for your town. Want more housing? — then you have to plan for it, and zone for it. The city council also controls the city budget including how much gets spent on roads, sidewalks, parks and other infrastructure. City councillors can also appoint members to bodies like the zoning board of adjustment or the landmarks commission which make decisions about individual projects and buildings. The sum of those decisions will affect how easy or hard it is to build in your community.
You may also have the opportunity to vote for local boards and district offices such as the school board, irrigation districts, or a transit board. These are all also jobs that will affect your communities opportunities to learn and thrive as well as the local environment. Schools, buses and how we treat water are all important.
In many places you will be able to directly vote on laws. For example it’s fairly common that bond measures be put to a vote. Typical bond measures fund specific projects, such as new schools, road repair or parks through municipal bonds which the city pays back out of future taxes. Other local spending measures such as increases to specific taxes for specific projects are relatively common local ballot measures.
State level elections are also important in terms of the built environment. You will probably be able to vote for state legislators this election. Who makes state law matters for planning because state budgets can be used for local projects. Plus State governments have the power preempt local laws. For example in Colorado state law prohibits local governments form banning or restricting fracking. You may have the ability to vote for ballot measures at a state as well as local level. For example here in California I’ll be voting on 11 statewide measures including bond measures to support affordable housing, whether to allow more rent control, and changes to the property tax code. All of these things will impact the built environment around the state for years to come.
One of the reasons people don’t vote in local elections is that it can be hard to find out about the candidates and measures. Small campaigns don’t always have lot of visibility and may not put much info online. However there are some resources available. Some states put out voter guides. But if you don’t live in one of those places there are still ways to become informed. Local newspapers can be good place to start, these frequently run editorials about elections and sometimes print guides or endorsement slates. Local organizations that are focused on specific issues can also be helpful. For example when deciding how to vote I generally look at how local housing, transit and environmental organizations suggest I vote. Some places host public events with the candidates so look out for those. I’ve also seen candidates campaigning in public places like farmers markets. Libraries are another good resource for information on voting. You could also ask an informed friend for advice both on now to vote and on how to be more informed.
Another strategy people use is to work with a group of friends to research the issues and candidates. Each person does in depth research about a few races then the group meets up to share what they learned. This allows everyone to be informed without each person having to do all the leg work themselves. If this isn’t possible for you and you don’t have time to research everything it’s better to pick at least one or two down ballot races to commit to voting in than just to not vote in any of them.
Try to do all you research ahead of time and go to the polls with your choices written down. I know this is lot of work and decision fatigue is real, but democracy works when everyone is informed and everyone takes part.
Voting in local elections is very important. Please do if you are eligible! Local officials they have major impact on your daily life, they make choices about what gets built where, buses, schools, sidewalks, street trees, parking and other aspects of the built environment. Local politics can feel like small potatoes but they do have big impact on your community.