FLINT, MI – Growing up, Ariana Hawk was told her vote didn’t matter. Like generations before her, she never really took heading to the polls seriously similar to many other Flint, Mich. residents.
“From my mother to my grandmother, everyone would say our vote didn’t count,” said 29-year-old Hawk. “I didn’t vote for a millage [or] proposals. I really didn’t know about bodies of government.” All that changed when Flint was hit with a water crisis potential exposing nearly 100,000 people to lead-tainted water.
“When I really found out that the people we elected did this to us, I realized that they don’t care about us. I realized that nothing is going to change if we don’t step up and make the change happen. I wasn’t an active voter. I didn’t do research until now,” said Hawk, who works as a regional manager in Flint for Color of Change, a national organization actively working on getting more people of color to the polls. “I feel like when people see me I have more of an impact. I’m from where they are from. I’m from their community. We have the same struggles. I know I can’t persuade everybody to vote but I can have an impact.”
Color of Change, celebrities, and political have worked to increase voting numbers in places similar to Flint. But are those efforts enough to motivate Flint residents to cast their ballots for the next mayor of Flint?
In the August 2019 primary, 12 percent of Flint’s registered voters turned out for the primary election. Incumbent Flint Mayor Karen Weaver gained 42 percent of the votes, and her opponent State Representative Sheldon Neeley received 39 percent moving the two to the Nov. 5, 2019, general election.
Those numbers changed for the 2016 presidential election, which saw now President Donald Trump walk away with a victory over Hilary Clinton, there was a 44 percent voter turnout in Flint. But this was an increase in voter turnout from the prior year’s mayoral election. In the 2015 mayoral election, less than 19 percent of registered voters turned out to elect Mayor Karen Weaver over, the then incumbent mayor, Dayne Walling, even though the city was in crisis.
Communities around the country are struggling to get residents to exercise their right to vote and are considering options to entice citizens to cast their ballots, including moving elections to weekends, making Election Day a paid day off, and they have even talked about financial incentives to increase voter turnout.
Why is voter turnout so low in communities like Flint?
There are numerous theories why turnout is so low in off-cycle elections. Derwin Munroe, Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Michigan-Flint says presidential candidates can better mobilize citizens as well as gain support from political parties. Meanwhile, local and state-level candidates are not so fortunate and do not have the support of national parties leaving local issues less appealing to voters.
“The irony of that is that most public services are delivered at the local level,” said Munroe. “It’s state and local public delivery of services. Education, roads, water, electricity, most of it is taking place at the local level.”
While approval of recreational marijuana stole most of the spotlight in Michigan’s 2018 general election, citizens also approved no reason absentee ballot voting. This means all eligible and registered voters may request an absentee voter ballot without providing a reason.
Munroe also pointed to Gerrymandering, the realignment of voting districts on a state level, which some say dilutes the voting power of opposing parties, as another possible reason people do not vote.
According to Munroe, with the propensity of likeminded candidates on the local level because of Gerrymandering, local races are often less intense, but this does not seem to be the case in this year’s mayoral race. The intensity has been on full display on social media and in the news.
Your vote counts
There is also a perception that local races are not as important, said Flint-area lawyer, Torchio W. Feaster. He disagrees with this notion and points to national initiatives that are directly affected by local politics.
“The national elections and the state elections are great when looking at things from a broad perspective,” Feaster explained. “But when you want to see how things are going to change your everyday life, those are your local elections.”
Historically local initiatives have made their way to national agendas. Fair housing became one of the pillars of the Civil Rights Movement and was a pinnacle of racial discrimination in the North. Redlining was a common discriminatory practice in northern cities such as Flint that systematical disallowed blacks from moving into parts of the city occupied predominately by whites. Eventually, redlining was outlawed when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
“You don’t have to be a candidate, but you can pay attention to what is happening, and you can tell people who vote, what your perspective is, and who you want to see get that position,” says Flint-area lawyer Torchio Feaster. “You can’t expect to get a result if you’re not exercising your right to try to help make sure that things go the way they need to go.”
Educational reform is another example of a local initiative that has been a mainstay in national news, but according to Feaster, this discussion should start on the local level first.
“When you want to know how the school is going to deal with different types of issues, how it’s going to determine which buildings are open, which buildings are closed, how many teachers are on staff that’s your local school board election,” Feaster said.
Feaster also pointed to criminal reform as another example of a national movement that is directly impacted by local politics. Policing and investigation policies are determined by the police chief who is appointed by the mayor that citizens choose. Prosecutors who are also elected officials are afforded discretion in terms of when they are going to issue charges and when they are not going to issue charges.
In 2018, a total of eight judicial seats were determined here in Genesee County where just 16 percent of Flint’s registered voters turned out. These judges are responsible for setting bonds, presiding over hearings, and administering sentences of those found guilty. They also select the court administrators who determine court policies, such as attaching fees to bonds. These fees prevent those who post bonds from recouping all of the cash securities they were required to put up.
“You have to be very knowledgeable about who you put in these positions because it is going to impact you in 50 million ways that you may not see when you just look at the ballot and say okay Johnny Smith is running for judge okay I’ll just vote for Johnny but you hadn’t done any research on Johnny, and you don’t know where Johnny stands on bonds or expungements or leadership in the city or anything like that,” said Feaster.
“Just by voting for somebody without having an understanding of what’s going on and looking into what they are standing for on the back end you may mess up your nephew when he has to go to court in terms of his bond. You might mess up your cousin when he has to go to court in terms of (receiving) work release or not (receiving) work release. You might mess up your brother when he goes to court when they put him on probation.”
Gentrification is another issue that has been in the national spotlight. Harlem, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit are just a few communities that have seen changes in their residents’ economic demographics. These once economically distressed communities all underwent renovations that made them more appealing to potential middle and upper-class residents – in turn leading to the displacement of the initial population who can no longer afford to reside in these communities.
Compton, Calif. is a community where citizens have opted to use their voice to protect themselves against gentrification. They voted in a political newcomer in Aja Brown, a former city urban planner, as mayor. They chose Brown over incumbent mayor Eric J. Perrodin and former mayor Omar Bradley in 2012.
Brown has successfully introduced affordable housing initiatives that allowed the city’s existing residents to continue to live in the communities they have inhabited for years while still revitalizing the city.
“I didn’t know the impact of my vote until I became more involved,” said Hawk who started working on political campaigns in 2017. “I became more engaged, stated going to city council meetings and doing research on issues and candidates and learned that voting impacts my daily life.”
Like Flint, Compton has habitually maintained a national reputation as one of America’s most dangerous cities. But that is changing under the guidance of Brown. She proclaimed that Compton would be the next Brooklyn, another urban city that has found a new life. Under Brown, violent crime has declined, infrastructure is receiving a resuscitation, and a plan is in place for economic development to move forward.
Previously marginalized cities are transforming. These cities have been revitalized to accommodate a tax base that has historically been more apt to turn out for elections. Through gentrification, this population has moved from the suburbs to closer proximity to the amenities of city life.
“You got a system of government with elected officials, and they are being voted into office by a relatively small group of people,” Munroe added. “Mayors are trying to reach out to as many people as possible to get out and vote, but they’re really going to try and tap into avid voters, people who have always been coming out. Those parts of the city are going to get more attention, and their concerns are going to get addressed, and that means development might follow.”
This contradicts the thought that participating in the election process is useless. In fact, it shows that abstaining from voting is more detrimental to the economically disadvantaged who are more likely not to vote.
“You don’t have to be a candidate, but you can pay attention to what is happening, and you can tell people who vote, what your perspective is, and who you want to see get that position,” Feaster said. “You can’t expect to get a result if you’re not exercising your right to try to help make sure that things go the way they need to go.”