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Presidential Races Get the Attention, but State and Local Elections Deserve Your Energy Too

Here we finally are, Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Election Day 2020. That quadrennial event when we go to the polls to elect the leader of this great country for the next four years. I’ve voted in every presidential election since 1980 and I’m 5-5. Meaning my vote is no better than a coin flip in determining who will win, so I’ve learned not to get too excited or disappointed at the outcomes.

Fortunately, there are millions of people in this country who ARE extremely passionate about the results of this presidential election – which bodes well for our national system of government. Unfortunately, we may not know the results of this election for several days or weeks, and that passion will probably continue to manifest itself in negatively-minded verbal sparring. 

Which is why I remind people that regardless of who wins, it’s very likely that for every person who voted for the winning candidate, two eligible voters didn’t. Hardly a mandate for a Sheldon “neener neener neener” moment should your candidate be the winner.

That’s right, even if a projected 62% of eligible voters cast ballots – 150 million out of 240 million eligible voters, which would make this the highest eligible voter turnout rate in 50 years – 38% of eligible voters won’t vote at all. And with a tightly contested race it’s unlikely one candidate will get much more than half of those who do vote – meaning less than a third of all eligible voters will cast a ballot for the winner. Perhaps something to consider before you start your happy dance on social media.

One other historical footnote that I like to remind people of so they have a sense of whence they came: In the 1790’s Thomas Jefferson and James Madison formed an opposition party to the then-dominant Federalist party. The name of this new political party in our then very-young country? The Democratic-Republican Party. That’s right – many of us were once on the same team, at least in name. 

In any case, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic I plan to vote today in a way I’ve never done before in any election – presidential or otherwise. By doing so I’ll minimize my time at the polls. I feel that is one small way I can be mindful of the volunteer poll workers whose presence is the only reason I’ll be able to cast my ballot today in this great experiment in democracy. A huge thank you to those volunteers for their service!

The funny thing is though, in spite of all the bluster and hullabaloo over this and every presidential election, a friend recently noted to me that as far as money is concerned, when voting we should be just as concerned, if not more so, about statewide and local elections. Of course I found this suggestion unbelievable, that the statewide and local elections affected more of my own personal money – what is coming directly out of my proverbial pocket – than federal elections. Certainly the chunk of money I give the federal government through taxes far outweighs what I give the state and local governments. All I need to do to confirm that is look at the deductions on my pay stub.

However, I was asked to dig a little deeper. So I did. And I was surprised at what I discovered. 

I went back through our last seven years of tax returns – because that’s how many were readily available – and compared the amounts we paid after all the deductions and other mathematical manipulations were settled (a big shout-out to our accountants – Sickler, Tarpey & Associates in Tyrone). 

What I found is that in four out of those seven years we paid more in income tax to the state and local governments combined – in our case Ferguson Township, home to the highest local income tax rate in our school district – than we did to the United States. Then when we included our Social Security and Medicare payments on the federal side, and our real estate taxes on the state/local side, it became five out of seven times we paid more to the state and local governments combined. And if I added in the state sales taxes we paid, it became seven out of seven.

I was surprised and a little shocked.

All these years I had been mistakenly focusing my taxation ire in the direction of the federal government. Because we lived for a number of years in Florida where there is no state or local income tax I have always considered the state and local income taxes here in Happy Valley and Pennsylvania to be our elected officials’ way of admitting they are guilty of living beyond their means. Obviously other states and municipalities around our country could make do without collecting income taxes, so why do our state and local governments need that extra income? But it never occurred to me that they were, in fact, taking more hard-earned money out of my pocket than the federal government.  

Had my friend not pointed this out to me I could have easily gone the rest of my life believing that as annoying as I find local and state taxes, they were but a pittance compared to what the federal government takes from me. Yet I was wrong – VERY wrong. And if this is the case for my friend and me, it might be for you too. It turns out that the late Thomas “Tip’ O’Neill Jr., former speaker of the United States House of Representatives, was right when he remarked, “All politics is local.”

Which brings me back to voting. If current projections hold true, with a 62% turnout this election will receive the highest eligible voter turnout rate in 50 years. And that turnout is mostly being stimulated by the race for the presidency. But during the next three years we will elect many state and local officials who will have a greater effect on my – and possibly your – pocketbook than whoever wins the race we’re contesting today. 

One year ago today voter turnout in Centre County for the 2019 municipal election was 30.5%. That’s less than half the projected turnout for today. Maybe if we the voters showed the same passion and enthusiasm for our “off-year” elections as we do for the presidential election, our local and state elected officials might not be taking what I consider a very outsized portion of our money. So, after these election results are finalized, whether you are relieved or distraught, consider being that focused and energetic about what transpires in November 2021, 2022 and 2023. That’s what we call democracy.