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Political Science Experts Explain Why People Should Care About Local Politics

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Why are local elections so important?

“Your mayor and city council members may have more impact on your daily life than you think. If you have problems with streets in your areas, or garbage or bulky items that aren’t being picked up, or stop lights that need to be installed, your senator or Congress member probably isn’t going to be able to help you, but your city council representative can,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, and a leading expert who has written three books on Los Angeles politics. “If there’s an issue with your local school, the people who can help are the members of the school board. Local politics often have more of a day-to-day impact on your life than you realize.”

An esteemed professor at Cal State Fullerton for decades, Sonenshein spoke on a recent panel alongside Jodi Balma, a professor of political science at Fullerton College and host of the “A Slice of Orange” podcast, about the upcoming election and why people should care about local politics. 

“A few weeks ago, my phone just blew up,” said Sonenshein. “You may have heard about an infamous recording made by three Los Angeles city council members? The release of that recording basically overwhelmed the political conversation in Los Angeles. It had such high visibility that I was getting calls from the East Coast and other parts of the world, asking me what was going on. I couldn’t even talk about it until several days later because it was so disturbing. Only now, weeks later, have we turned our attention back to the upcoming elections in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“One of the more overlooked aspects of that recorded conversation, once you stop listening to the vitriol, is the resistance to generational change,” Sonenshein said. “The political landscape is changing and many politicians feel very uncertain or threatened by the different needs of different groups. The most consistent voters tend to be older white people. In early voting so far, 77% of the voters are over 55. But that’s starting to change.

“For instance, take the housing market. Most older voters own houses and they’re looking for stability. However, younger voters in Southern California are worried that they will never be able to afford a house so housing affordability is a big deal to them.

“Climate change is also high on the list of things that young voters worry about,” he continued. “They worry that the world is going to change, and not for the better, before they turn old. Older voters are more concerned with crime and public safety. If elected officials want to be taken seriously by younger voters, they need to address the needs these newer voters find important.”

Sonenshein also added that Asian Americans and Hispanic voters are becoming more active and politically powerful.

Recent polls suggest that while older white people are still most likely to vote, Asian Americans are second and their numbers are increasing. Latinos, who generally register as Democrats, often switch votes to Republican candidates that they believe are more in touch with their concerns.

Each voting bloc has concerns and is looking for someone who will address what they believe are important issues. Politicians who ignore them do so at their own peril.

So why don’t more people vote in local elections? 

“We’re pretty good about registering voters but we aren’t as good at explaining why this is important,” Sonenshein said. “We need to focus more energy on educating people about why their vote is important. We are on a knife’s edge in choosing democracy or an autocratic political system. The fact is, if you don’t vote, there may come a time when you won’t have an option to choose between candidates.”

Balma suggested that voters look to sites such as to find more specific information…and also look to see who is supporting different candidates. 

“Follow the money,” she advised. “And look for ‘spoiler’ candidates — some companies will add another candidate into the mix to syphon votes away from the candidate they don’t want to win.”

She held up a sheaf of recent fliers that have been sent out by various candidates. 

“Some of them are ridiculous,” she said. “A lovely photo of a candidate running next to a photo of their opponent who is frowning. Crazy accusations, words taken out of context…these are ways to make voters believe that the opposing candidate is awful. Look at who is endorsing the candidate. Or better yet, go to a trusted resource.”

Here are some of the recommendations Balma made:

Both panelists advised people to get involved in local elections and local politics. Elected officials often appoint people to commissions to study specific problems.

“Once you get involved, you can be part of the solution to the problems we face,” said Balma.

Valerie Orleans