Ideally, local governments as the smallest jurisdictions in the American political system allow citizens to engage in a direct and substantive way. Local elections are one way this happens, as citizens select about half a million elected officials, one for every 450 adults, to serve in more than 85,000 U.S. local governments. But despite their potential to serve as entry points for average citizens, local elections suffer from the same campaign issues as state and national elections, including issues about the role of money in politics. And reform efforts to date have not done enough to limit the impact of resource disparities among contending candidates.
The Role of Money in U.S. Elections – Including Local Elections
Past research on money in U.S. electoral politics has concluded that raising campaign money is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Very few candidates win without spending at least some threshold amount, but spending more than the opponent does not guarantee victory. Candidates cannot actually “buy” an election by spending exorbitant amounts.
These patterns hold true for most local elections as well. Even though the raw dollar amounts are less, on a per-voter basis local elections are just as expensive as state or national contests. In other words, local candidates spend just as much money communicating their message to each voter. In most mid-sized and large cities, candidates need to assemble campaign funds to be competitive. Only in the smallest cities and towns – those with less than 10,000 registered voters – do candidates routinely run successful campaigns without campaign funds. Similarly to state and national elections, though, raising more money than opponents is not decisive. Wealthy, high-spending candidates are common on a local level, but they do not have a great track record of electoral success. A sizable minority of local election victors – perhaps slightly over one-third – prevail despite being outspent by their opponents.
Although it’s easier for candidates to jump into races, local elections are not more competitive than state or national elections – and most local as well as higher-level incumbents win re-election (in one study, 80% of city council incumbents win). In general, local elections resemble state and national contests. Except in scattered small places, they do not live up to their potential to be grassroots, citizen-driven affairs where money has little relevance.
Campaign Finance Reforms at the Local Level
Some cities have implemented campaign finance reforms to limit the influence of money – but without much-proven success:
- New York and Los Angeles have public matching fund programs lauded by reformers to provide public funding to candidates who accept voluntary expenditure limits. The intent of these programs is to reduce the amount of money in elections, level the playing field, and encourage more candidates to run. However, there is scant evidence that public matching funds have much effect. After a typical “novelty effect” in the first election reforms were put in place, similar numbers of candidates run in contests that are about equally competitive. Incumbents win just as often. And candidates circumvent limits by relying on independent spending by outside groups.
- Similarly, although legal contribution limits may reduce the number of large donations given directly to local candidates, there is little evidence that they reduce the overall amounts of money in local elections. Candidates find ways around such limits through independent group expenditures or by “bundling” contributions from multiple donors.
- It is still too early to draw firm conclusions from Seattle’s “democracy voucher” program, which provides four twenty-five dollar vouchers to every registered voter, so that he or she can donate to participating City Council candidates. The program started in 2017, and after the novelty effect wears off, it may run into the same problems as public funding programs: many candidates may choose not to participate; the funding may not be enough to run competitive campaigns; and independent expenditures may be used to skirt the intent of the law.
Better Paths Forward
So what can be done to reduce harmful influences of money in local elections? To answer this question, problems must first be accurately diagnosed. Local candidates need money to pay for advertising, the single largest expenditure for most local candidates. Because so few voters pay much attention to local races, candidates really do need resources to get their messages out. Realistic and effective reforms could aim to reduce, not just donations, but candidates’ need to pay for advertising. Efforts to limit money in local elections are bound to fail without addressing the underlying reasons candidates must raise and spend campaign funds in the first place.
Public funding – whether matching funds, “clean elections,” or Seattle’s Democracy Vouchers – addresses the need to pay for advertising by providing taxpayer subsidies to candidates. Even though this is a reasonable approach, the voluntary nature of these programs limits their effectiveness. Some candidates may join these programs and accept their rules to get public funding so they can advertise, but many may choose to rely on private donations instead. What is more, there is little public appetite for diverting taxpayer money to candidates who fill voters’ emails and mailboxes with appeals and flyers.
A better approach is to reform campaign finance not by limiting the amount of money candidates raise and spend, but by reducing the need for candidates to pay for advertising. This means finding ways to engage citizens in local elections or providing more, and better, information to those who are engaged – or both. So far, efforts such as registration drives and voter information websites have not shown much promise. But there are other experiments that can be tried to enhance local democracy. For example, elections might become more interesting if they involved events to let citizens deliberate over contentious local issues or hear solutions to local problems offered by community groups. Candidates could be asked to reply. Even though it is not clear what can be done to reduce the need for candidates to use paid advertising, reformers should turn their attention to that key expense. Maybe money donated in local politics is not as much the issue as how money is used – and should be used – to maximize citizen interest and engagement.
What Do You Know About Disability Cultural Competence?
Recently, I had the opportunity to give a webinar on disability cultural competence to social service workers, but was met with many blank stares. As a disabled social worker myself, I often notice that the disability community is not recognized as a cultural group. Disability is also not considered as a social identity in diversity considerations, despite the ways the community feels about it. Frankly, our field has a long way to go when it comes to developing disability cultural competence. Let’s see if we can change that.
Why the We Need to Prioritize the Disability Community
You may be asking yourself, why all the focus on disability? Well, the disability community comprises 26 percent of the adult U.S. population – that’s one in four Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among children under the age of 18, estimates suggest that 4.3 percent of the population is disabled according to the U.S. Census from 2019. This means that social services workers are interacting with the disability community all over! It’s also important to note that disability transcends race, ethnicity, gender and other social identities, as seen in the graphic below (courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017). So we need to remember to be intersectional in our practice – these are not siloed communities.
Importance of Disability Identity
I’d like to transition now to talking about the importance of having a disability identity. Some people identify as disabled from a cultural perspective. Some people are not even aware that this is an option and you can open their eyes to the world of disability as a resource for them. In other words, for some, this is a missed opportunity to connect to a supportive network. For others, it’s a choice not to identify as disabled either due to stigma, internalized ableism or other beliefs. The idea is that developing a strong disability identity is super helpful with your long-term well-being. And in order to do this, you have to both connect with the disability community and with disability culture. So what is that?
What is Disability Culture?
In short, disability culture is the “sum total of behaviors, beliefs, ways of living, & material artifacts that are unique to persons affected by disability.” It’s essential for social service workers to be tuned in to disability culture so they can leverage it to connect with their clients. And let’s be clear, disability culture does NOT consist of disability service programs. Where we really see disability culture come alive is on social media sites, such as Twitter and Instagram. You can follow some of the major disability culture hashtags to see the dialogues and debates that are hot in our community right now, such as: #DisabilityTwitter; #DisabilityVisability; #DisabilityAwareness; #IdentityFirst; #DisabilityLife; #Spoonie,#SpoonieLife, and more.
You may notice that the last two hashtags included the word “spoonie.” This derives from “spoon theory,” which is an actual theory based on a metaphor about how much mental and physical energy a person has to accomplish their activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). The disability community talks about how many “spoons” they have as a unit of measurement of energy – and sometimes refers to themselves as spoonies. Please note that in teaching you this, I am helping you to develop your disability cultural competence.
How Build Disability Cultural Competence
Other ways to build up your disability cultural competence are to check out the Disability Visibility Project, which tells the stories of diverse members of the community in wonderful ways. And there are a range of organizations, such as Sins Invalid, which founded the disability justice movement. You can also read the 10 principles of that movement in this short document. This will help you to tune in to the disability pride movement. We have a pride month and a pride flag too, it happens in July.
When it comes to engaging in disability competent practice, we need to develop knowledge about disability culture and disability history. We can also consider taking the following steps to round out this competence:
First, we need to examine our own attitudes about disability and engage in reflective practice around that. You can consider your own implicit bias about the disability community through Harvard University’s Project Implicit test about ableism, or through social worker Vilissa Thompson’s guide to checking your own ableism.
Second, developing disability cultural competence over time also includes a careful look at the terminology we are using and respecting disabled people’s choice of identity-first language in many cases. You can read more about that here and throughout that site. The Harvard Business Review also has a thoughtful essay on why you need to stop using particular words and phrases. It’s a great resource and helpful read for many.
Third, we also need to think respectfully about disability etiquette and how ideas play out in different parts of the disability community. One should presume competence about us – all of us! We ask that you respect our bodily autonomy, speak to the person and not their companion/interpreter, ask before you help, be sensitive about physical contact/equipment contact, don’t make assumptions about capacity, listen to us, don’t assume you know better and if you are in doubt about what to do, ask! Writer Andrew Purlang sums up his disability etiquette request as follows:
- Don’t be afraid to notice, mention, or ask about a person’s disability when it’s relevant — but don’t go out of your way!
- Offer to help, but make sure to listen to their response, respect their answer, & follow their directions
- Don’t tell a disabled person about how they should think about or talk about their own disability
- Don’t give unsolicited medical, emotional, or practical advice
- Don’t make a disabled person responsible for managing your feelings about their disability, or for your education on disability issues
- If you make a mistake, just say you’re sorry and move on. Don’t try to argue that you were right all along.
Taken together, these steps, learning disability culture, and examining our own attitudes about disability, go a long way towards the development of disability cultural competence. But none of it will do any good if we are not fighting for disability access and disability inclusion, which are central issues for the disability community. Many people think that issues of access were solved by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But the implementation of that law is fraught and embattled, and there is lots of work to be done on the access front. Take a look at these simple guides below. They will go a long way in helping to engage the disability community and making us feel welcome! Above all, remember our movement’s rallying cry, “nothing about us, without us!”
America Has an Anger Problem – Can Better “Mental Nutrition” Fix It?
America is a pretty angry place these days. Formerly respectful spaces like school board meetings have become bitter battlegrounds. Some people are harassing healthcare workers and threatening restaurant staff for enforcing COVID protocols. Others are openly furious with the vaccine-hesitant. Everyone, wherever they stand on the (deeply divided) political playing field, is outraged about something.
Sure, anger is part of the human condition, but have things always been this bad? Elaine Parke thinks not—and she has a plan to get America the anger management tools it needs.
“We’ve stopped listening to one another because we’ve become addicted to our own narrow and sometimes selfish points of view,” says Parke, author of “The Habits of Unity: 12 Months to a Stronger America…one citizen at a time” (Outskirts Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9772-4276-1, $21.95, www.12habits4allofus.
“It’s way past time for us to take a collective deep breath and treat others with dignity, respect, and civility—and listen to them—whether we agree or not,” she adds. “It’s urgent that we make this shift now.”
Dialing down our ire is easier said than done. We are living in extraordinarily stressful times. But there’s more at play. Parke says we are shaped by the messages we consistently consume—and in today’s connected world, a lot of those messages come from our digital diet.
“Social media isn’t solely to blame for stoking our emotional flames—in fact, it was designed to be a source of information and to bring people together,” Parke clarifies. “But if your newsfeed is making you an angrier person, it’s on you to either log off for a few days or reassess the kind of content you’re engaging with. When we choose to focus on stories that are positive and nourishing, we go a long way toward resetting our emotional equilibrium.”
Parke’s “The Habits of Unity” is her attempt to help people take charge of what she calls their “Mental Nutrition.” Much in the same way that we (hopefully) approach the food we eat, we need to develop the discipline to make more nutritious mental choices every day. Her book’s 365 “one-magic-minute-a-day” motivationals make it easy to hardwire these choices into habit.
With her simple, doable framework for uplifting ourselves, boosting our mental health, and practicing unity, Parke hopes to get everyone focused on the same branded behavior each month. The idea is that the sheer force of all that concentrated positive energy sparks a unity revolution that rises from the ground up and sweeps the nation.
Yet, until that happens, we can leverage the power of “The Habits of Unity” on a personal level by forming one good habit per month:
January: Help Others
February: You Count
March: Resolve Conflicts
April: Take Care of Our Environment
May: Be Grateful
June: Reach Higher
July: Become Involved
August: Know Who You Are
September: Do Your Best
October: Be Patient and Listen
November: Show a Positive Attitude
December: Celebrate Community, Family, and Friends
Those who’ve tried it say the plan is easy to put into practice. It feels good, so you’ll want to keep doing it. And there’s a ripple effect. As you become more positive, centered, and respectful, others will be drawn to you and your relationships will improve.
“As these ripples expand, they will improve the emotional climate in our country and make it easier to seek common ground, instead of lashing out,” says Parke. “But we can’t sit around waiting for others to take action. Each American must recommit to making our country a welcoming, affirming melting pot—instead of a stewing pot.”
Too Many Young People Aren’t Getting the Jab – Can Music Change Their Minds?
When Frank Kilpatrick set out to convince more younger people to get the jab, he knew he’d have to overcome several roadblocks. One, young people tend to feel invincible, and thus somehow unaffected by the COVID-19 virus. Two, they aren’t moved by data that shows the benefits of vaccination. Three, they tend not to watch TV—especially the news—like older generations do. And so he and his team came up with a creative solution: Reach them through music.
“Music is a kind of language for young people,” says Kilpatrick, who has come together with a team of concerned citizens via the non-profit organization Ribbons for Research to figure out what will convince more Americans to get vaccinated. “It plays a huge role in their search for identity. It’s a powerful form of self-expression. It connects them to their tribe. So we figured, why not speak their language?”
He and his team realized the Gen Z (ages 18-24) and Millennial (ages 25-40) cohorts are vaccinated at low rates similar to those of rural Southern populations. To reach them, Kilpatrick’s team developed a focused PSA initiative with the theme “COVID-19 Is Not a Hoax.” The centerpiece of the campaign is a music single and corresponding music video titled “COVID-19 Is Hell.” It features the singer Rayko.
Kilpatrick urges media outlets to view, download, and share the single by clicking here, and asks television and radio stations to place it into high-visibility rotation in their schedules.
“The video is cool and fun and even sexy, yet carries a serious message,” says Kilpatrick. “By bringing a contemporary pop music vibe together with engaging images, we’re getting that message across in a way young people will be receptive to—all we need is the help of media outlets to share it with their audiences.”
The music video is an extension of Ribbons for Research’s initial public service announcement (PSA) campaign titled Shoulda Got the Shot. These video and radio segments feature portrayals and testimonials from real people who have been seriously ill or lost a loved one due to COVID-19.
“The idea behind the Shoulda Got the Shot PSAs and also this newest music video is to try a heartfelt, emotional, non-preachy, politically neutral approach we believe will resonate and move these groups to take action,” says Kilpatrick.
His collaborators on the projects include director Eric Mittleman, producer Linda Kilpatrick, and associate producer Rayko Takahashi.
To understand more about why Kilpatrick and team have decided to devote so much time and so many resources to creating this PSA project, here is a quick mini-interview with him:
Q: Who does the Shoulda Got the Shot campaign target?
A: We’re aiming this campaign at various underserved populations: politically polarized, lower income, minority, and rural audiences. We have a similar social media strategy aimed at the younger “party hearty” populations that feel invincible.
Q: Why is it so urgent?
A: Currently, although the numbers have improved over the past month or so, the U.S. vaccination rate isn’t where it should be. Quite simply, the more holdouts we can convince to get the shot, the more lives we’ll save.
Q: What makes this campaign different?
A: Our Shoulda Got the Shot PSA campaign doesn’t lecture its audience. It isn’t a blatant endorsement by politicians and scientists. It doesn’t tell people what to think. Our approach is based on the most proven type of human persuasion: human connection. These testimonials are raw and emotional and real. People will be more likely to trust these spokespeople in a way that they’d never trust a politician or scientist. These are people who look like them.
I mean, you can feel Martha’s anguish when her voice breaks as she talks about how her daddy died from a hole in his lung caused by COVID-19. When she goes on to encourage others to get vaccinated, it’s clear that it comes from a genuine desire to prevent suffering. These spots are incredibly compelling.
Q: So…why you? What drove you to launch this campaign?
A: First, this is a cause I deeply care about. I feel much the same way about it that I felt about the Stay Alive suicide prevention documentary film I produced 18 months ago. But also, thanks to my work in the healthcare communications field, I have many years of experience in producing these kinds of permission-based approaches that feature an appeal to community agreement. I know from experience this is a powerful strategy.
Q: How can others help?
A: Please…if you work with a TV, cable, or radio station, or have influence with any other media outlet, air these PSAs and/or the “COVID-19 Is Hell” single and video. Share this lifesaving content with your community. Call (424) 262-5570 to get copies of the spots delivered to you, or visit www.
“We really have a lot of hope for this campaign,” adds Kilpatrick. “If we all join together to share these vital messages, we can help improve the numbers in under-vaccinated communities across the U.S. We can save lives—perhaps ultimately even our own.”
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