To improve democracy, start at the local level
As we head into the U.S. midterm elections, voters across the country are following news of governors' races and hotly contested congressional seats. This fall, millions across the country will enter the voting booth excited and prepared to vote for their next senator or congressman.
But federal and statewide races represent only a tiny fraction of this November's ballot. According to our data, there will be over 70,000 positions up for election in 2018. These include well-known positions like state representative, county commissioner, school board member, and city councilor, as well as lesser-known elected offices like coroner, jailer and soil and water commissioner.
These offices are little known, often uncontested, and extremely important. While federal candidates may vote on national defense or supreme court justices, local elected officials make decisions that affect our lives every day: they monitor our drinking water, levy taxes, prosecute crimes, and choose the leadership of our schools.
Yet right now, more voters will struggle to cast an informed vote on every race and referendum this fall. In fact, nationally, 30 percent of voters will take the time to show up on Election Day and then will fail to complete their ballot. Another untold percentage will guess: based on party, incumbency, ethnicity, gender, or even ballot position. Researchers have found that candidates listed first on the ballot -- and this includes presidential candidates! -- will receive up to 5 percent more votes, simply by virtue of being first. For too many of the 70,000 positions on the ballot this November, we'll be leaving their election up to chance.
This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem as part of the ROI Summit, a gathering of 150 Jews from around the world meeting to dream big, network intensely, and learn a great deal from a cohort of talented peers. One of the most powerful moments of the summit for me was a conversation about what democracy looked like across our respective countries -- in Israel and Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
What I learned is that around the world, countries are struggling with similar issues in government -- lack of information on candidates, a loss of faith in institutions, as well as real movements toward authoritarianism. A Jewish woman from Istanbul shared her fears about anti-Semitism and the concentration of political power. Two entrepreneurs from Tel Aviv talked about the different cleavages in Israeli society -- between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular -- and how Israel is working to grapple with difference in the context of a democratic state. A leader from former Soviet Union Ukraine described efforts to combat corruption.
While democracy once seemed inevitable, we are now seeing how fragile it truly is. A historically new institution, democracy remains an experiment -- as Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
To me, improving democracy begins at the local level -- helping voters cast an informed vote for everything on their ballot. That's why I'm one of the co-founders of BallotReady.org -- a nonpartisan voter guide to every race and referendum scaling nationwide this fall. Right now, we're recruiting 500 hosts for ballot parties across the country -- opportunities for voters to come together in a nonpartisan way to research every race on their ballot and help each other make informed decisions for the important races at the bottom of our ballots.
This fall, I hope you'll join me -- in committing to paying attention to local races, in researching every candidate and ballot measure, in maybe hosting a ballot party. Democracy is fragile -- but together this fall, we can hold elected officials accountable, elevate all elected officials, and help make it work the way it should.
Aviva Rosman is COO and co-founder of the Chicago-based web platform BallotReady.org that seeks to create a more informed electorate and strengthen democracy by helping voters vote informed, all the way down the ballot.