The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has undoubtedly shifted how we go about our daily lives in the United States. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our nation’s unpreparedness for efficiently and adequately responding to a crisis of this scale; on the other hand, the pandemic has highlighted an astounding resilience that exists throughout this nation, both on the individual and community levels. With the largely decentralized response to mitigating COVID-19 in the U.S., we have seen state, county, and municipal governments placed at the forefront of decision-making efforts and policy implementation. For this reason, the consequences of local elections have arguably become clearer now than at any other time in recent history.
Since March of this year, the U.S. has seen a great deal of variability in the intensity of COVID-19 cases and deaths. This fluctuation is attributable in great measure to the contrasting policies being implemented throughout the nation. For instance, state and local officials are making vital public health decisions regarding the facilitation of COVID-19 testing – including the accessibility of receiving a test, the turn-around time for results, and contact tracing efforts to alleviate the spread of the virus. In addition, local officials are tasked with making decisions that impact the economic health and security of communities, from the allocation of federal aid to developing and facilitating small business relief programs. Because of the lack of uniformity nationwide, individuals and families in one part of the country may experience the pandemic very differently than those in another part of the country, solely based on the dissimilar policy choices made by their state and local leaders.
“The pandemic places a disproportionate burden on local candidates for office, who are now forced to adopt more innovative methods of reaching voters”
The phrase "all politics is local" – made ubiquitous by former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill – succinctly captures the weight of local elections, which are often much more impactful to our daily lives than what goes on in Washington, D.C. While technological advancements have allowed for a relatively smooth transition to remote work and e-learning, the swift transition to e-government and e-campaign work has been less noticed. As COVID-19 continues to proliferate during a highly-contentious election cycle, local elected officials have had to balance the all-important job of governing with learning how to campaign during a pandemic.
We all know that 2020 is a pivotal election year, and while the American public can rest assured that they will still be inundated with the disquieting campaign ads and media frenzy from both political parties on the national level, the conversation is likely to be very different on the local level. Digital political ad spending is expected to reach upwards of $10 billion in this year’s election cycle; however, candidates for local office, who often operate with extremely limited budgets and resources, typically depend on more traditional forms of in-person campaigning (such as door-to-door canvassing) to get their name and message out to their respective communities. Consequently, the pandemic places a disproportionate burden on local candidates for office, who are now forced to adopt more innovative methods of reaching voters.
Despite this fact, the opportunities for voter contact are still plentiful on the local level. With an abundance of online meeting platforms from which to choose, local officials and candidates can host virtual events that are free and easily accessible to members of the public. Notably, some local officials and candidates for office have adopted these changes masterfully, hosting virtual events such as town halls or coffee hours to disseminate important information to constituents and allow voters to voice their concerns – all while getting to know the official or candidate on a more personal level. Reverting to a pre-pandemic strategy, candidates for local office are simply calling constituents directly for personalized phone conversations centered on the policies that matter most to the voter. Also, while traditional door-to-door canvassing is largely being phased out by 2020 campaigns due to the inherent safety concerns with face-to-face interactions, candidates and volunteers have found that they can still safely deliver campaign literature via mail service or in-person, contactless delivery known as literature drops.
The fact remains that in times of great volatility and unpredictability, local leaders have a unique responsibility to meet the moment with a steadfast resolve, and the indispensable role of local officials has never been more evident than now. In a time where information is ever-changing and oftentimes hard to discern in terms of its veracity, local elected officials and candidates for local office have the opportunity – frankly, the duty – to provide members of the public with transparent, fact-based, and reliable information. In response, voters should take advantage of the copious new tools at their disposal to keep themselves abreast of the issues – not just at the national level, but in their local communities. By recognizing the momentous importance that local governance plays in our daily lives, and by adopting inclusive and safety-minded methods of communicating during the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders and their respective communities are helping to sustain a healthy system of democracy in 2020 and beyond.