Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The margin of victory in the 2012 presidential election was 3.5 million votes. In the 2014 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election, it was 300,000 votes. The margin for Pennsylvania’s 161st District (yes, that’s us) in 2016? 240 votes.
Leanne Krueger-Braneky, our state representative, beat Patti Rodgers Morisette by what could have been the votes of half of Swarthmore’s freshman class.
It’s easy to forget that local elections matter—frankly, it’s easy to forget that local elections even happen. There is not much to read about in the news. We aren’t constantly being bombarded with negative political ads. The chances of Mary Walk, the Democratic candidate for County Register of Wills, being portrayed by Kate McKinnon on SNL? About as small as Leanne Krueger-Braneky’s margin of victory.
Unfortunately, that also means you’re unlikely to hear about how important something that seems so menial, like the County Register of Wills, can actually be. In 2013, Bruce Hanes, Register of Wills in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, continued to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples even after the State of Pennsylvania said it did “untold harm to the public.” Hanes argued that the law violated both the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. Montgomery County issued a statement defending Hanes’ right to stand up for his constituency.
This is exactly the function of local government. In his decision in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy.” The idea expressed by Brandeis, and outlined by the Framers in the Constitution’s protections of states’ rights, is for states to be able to experiment—to try different programs that appeal to their locality and respond more actively to the needs of their constituents. Both Brandeis and the Framers understood that states are much more equipped to respond to their specific populations than the federal government.
And states frequently do. New Jersey allowed women to vote for 30 years after the ratification of the Constitution, which intentionally leaves voting qualifications up to the states. President Obama’s health care plan drew heavily on the “Romney-care” model that had already been successfully implemented in Massachusetts. Massachusetts was also the first state to declare bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, paving the way for similar state decisions and eventually a Supreme Court confirmation in Obergefell v. Hodges. President Obama’s executive order on fuel emission standards was based on a similar standard already passed in California. And in 1970, New York State legalized abortion, three years before the Supreme Court did the same in Roe v. Wade.
In each of these cases, the state and local governments worked ahead of the federal, implementing programs that had already brought support within their locality while the federal government sat, often in deadlock. State and local governments are the most equipped to handle the specific needs of their constituencies. Nobody on the Swarthmore Borough Council is going to resolve cases of national security or meet with a foreign diplomat. That’s not their job. But they are able to listen to the unique concerns of their voters – including Swarthmore students. When Sarah Graden, a candidate for Borough Council, came to a Swat Dems meeting last year, she sat and listened. She discussed Swat21 (the ballot measure that would turn Swarthmore into a wet town) and how dangerous it was to cross Yale Avenue on the way to Mary Lyons because the corner was blind (she told us that, if elected, she would try to get a crossing light put in).
Local politics is not glamorous. It is not the topic of discussion at the dinner table or in the classroom. But local politics is the reality that touches our lives every day, and it is our best course of action for making change in our immediate communities. Election Day is November 7. Casting a vote takes 20 minutes or less; the result could shape the future of the borough, the state, and even the country.
Abby Diebold is the treasurer of the Swarthmore College Democrats.
Featured image courtesy of salinascoop.com.