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Op-Ed: Vote local 2021

by JESSICA MAHURON/Special to The Press
| September 12, 2021 1:00 AM

For the November 2016 election, I vividly remember the frustration I felt while voting with little to no information about North Idaho College board of trustees and other local candidates. From my vantage point at the time, the candidates were unfamiliar names on a page for roles that I knew almost nothing about. There were parts of my ballot I left blank, and there were positions I voted for solely based on party affiliation. Tumultuous national politics had out-shadowed and over-influenced local matters for me. I was far from fulfilling my citizen responsibility of being an informed voter.

That was the last time I voted blind or by party label. That experience inspired me to educate myself further and help connect others to nonpartisan voting information through my volunteer work as founder of the Civic Engagement Alliance, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and as a member of the Kootenai County League of Women Voters.

Throughout the last five years, I have made a concentrated effort to be more knowledgeable about local government and the issues impacting my community, and most importantly — how elections can have far-reaching consequences.

Being more civically engaged and focused on local matters has dramatically changed how I approach my own independent decision-making at the ballot box. A quote by Walter Cronkite sums up my current stance: “I find that I cast my votes not based on party loyalty but on the issues of the moment and my assessment of the candidates.”

I know firsthand from knocking on doors and organizing voter registration drives that many people struggle with local election information as I once did. In 2019, Civic Engagement Alliance conducted a survey on civic participation, collecting 400 local responses. Only 26% of people said “yes” when asked, “do you feel like you can easily access nonpartisan information about local candidates or issues?” We were not surprised that the number one response to “what would prevent you from voting in any local, state-wide or national election?” was “not informed enough about issues or candidates.”

Election season is here, and I have never been so concerned about the course of our community as now. On November 2, Kootenai County voters will make critical decisions on mayors, city councils, school boards and fire districts.

There is a multitude of ways our lives will be impacted by these decisions. Housing. Public education. Human rights. Public safety. The health of our regional economy. Meeting basic infrastructure needs in the face of escalating growth. Our healthcare system is overwhelmed by COVID-19.

I am concerned that loud and impassioned groups, many of them self-described as “cultural refugees” will dominate voter turnout, while those with roots and long-term commitments to this community may not mobilize to the same effect.

According to the “Who Votes for Mayor?” project by the Portland State University (whovotesformayor.org), in local elections across the United States, fewer than 15 percent of eligible citizens are turning out to vote for local elections. The project summarizes, “when too few people elect local leaders, a small fraction of residents can have outsize influence in decisions about critical issues like schools, parks, housing, libraries, police, and transportation.”

In these chaotic times, we need responsible and adaptable local elected leaders that will address our challenges and value the input of non-elected community leaders, scientific data, knowledge experts and constituents.

Civic Engagement Alliance invites concerned citizens to stand up for your community with us with our VOTE LOCAL 2021 campaign. We are organizing action items to get out the vote and encourage informed voting for responsible local leadership. We have safe, simple and accessible volunteer opportunities available to sign up for now including our Postcards to Voters project. Go to civicengagecda.com/votelocal2021 to learn more.

We also have our own version of a Kootenai County online voter guide in the works at civicengagecda.com/voterguide. Some information is accessible now, while the rest we hope to be completed by early October.

Last November, we piloted our online voter resources portal, incorporating valuable candidate information from the League of Women Voters VOTE411.org, the Coeur d’Alene Press and other nonpartisan sources. Candidate forum videos, sample ballots, voteidaho.gov links to register to vote or request an absentee ballot, voting rights resources were all there on one page. Voters had the ability to call or email a candidate directly from our voter guide if that information was publicly available.

Seeing that candidate participation in surveys can be a struggle, we opted to not create a questionnaire and contact candidates. If anything, links to candidate websites and Facebook pages speak for themselves. Our goal is to provide voters with resources for them to make their own independent decisions.

Civic Engagement Alliance does not advocate or oppose any candidate for office as a nonprofit organization. What we do is encourage participation and voter education, and we act for shared values like strong public schools. However, we do encourage robust volunteerism for others who want to directly help a candidate succeed or for another organization they believe in. It’s going to take a concentrated and collaborative effort to get out the vote, whether it’s through education or persuasion.

It’s ironic that five years later, it’s the drama and incivility displayed at recent North Idaho College board of trustees meetings that have become the example of why local races matter. I know it’s just one thing that’s motivating me to organize a campaign about local elections as an unpaid volunteer.

We must mobilize as we cannot afford inaction. Get informed. Get involved. VOTE LOCAL!

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Jessica Mahuron is a Coeur d’Alene resident and founder of the local nonprofit Civic Engagement Alliance.