09/08/10: Think ‘local’ this campaign season

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

LABOR Day is the traditional start to the fall campaign season. With it comes the inevitable avalanche of mail, radio and TV advertisements. Most will come from the top of the ticket, which this year means congressional races. Millions of dollars will be spent to persuade each of us to cast our vote for one of 435 members of the House of Representatives.

Think about that for a second: one of 435.

Further down the ballot, you’ll find some local races. But you won’t hear much about those candidates. Few newspaper articles will be written. They may get a couple of pieces of mail to your house, they may get a radio ad or two, and a couple of them may even make it to TV, but you probably won’t see the ads unless you’re   up very early in the morning or very late at night.

In Portsmouth, residents are electing a mayor, one of seven members of the City Council. Eight people have offered to serve and will be on the ballot. In Norfolk, a council member — of eight — representing half the city will be elected. Four candidates will be on the ballot.

Suffolk has a ward system; voters in each of four boroughs will have the opportunity to vote for one council member and one School Board member. There are eight council members and seven School Board members. Eight candidates have filed for council and nine for School Board.

In Virginia Beach, six of the 11 City Council seats are up for election, along with six of the 11 School Board seats. Even with one of the council seats and three of the School Board seats uncontested, there will be 14 council candidates and 10 for the School Board. Virginia Beach still has at-large elections, which means that every voter gets to cast a ballot for each office.

So in Virginia Beach, a voter   in November gets to weigh in on roughly half of the members of the council and almost a third of the School Board. And 0.2 percent of Congress.

Voters in Portsmouth get to weigh in on more than 14 percent of the members of council. And 0.2 percent of Congress.

Voters in Suffolk get to choose more than 14 percent  of the school board and more than 12 percent of the members of the council. And 0.2 percent of Congress.

Half of Norfolk voters get to choose more than 12 percent of the members of council. All of Norfolk gets to choose 0.2 percent of Congress.

Every Virginia voter will get to weigh in on three amendments to our state constitution. Oh, yeah — and 0.2 percent of Congress.

How did our focus get turned from the elections in which we have such tremendous influence toward those in which our voices count so little?

Some will go to the polls and vote only for those candidates at the top, leaving blank the choices for the local races. That is not as it should be. As Lotte Scharfman, a refugee from Nazi Germany, said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”

Fifty-three of our neighbors have offered to take on the sometimes thankless task of making decisions that affect us every day.

For that, we owe it to them — and to ourselves — to spend a little time finding out what their vision for our community is and what their priorities are and casting our votes for the ones we believe best represent our interests.