The Fallacy of Federalism

Conservatives frequently say that political power, and the development of political policies, should be devolved to the lowest level of government since that is closest to the people. This is one key aspect of “federalism,” idea seems simple enough. Local officials know their constituents. State legislators and city council members live and work among the people they represent, and so they are more likely to know their constituents and therefore more likely to actually know what the public wants. As a result they should be more attuned with local issues and problems, and more likely to be able to fashion a local solution based on the needs of the people.

The flip side of this is the idea that citizens are much more directly impacted by local issues and so are more aware of them, and much more likely to know more about the problems and possible solutions. And because they are more aware, they are much more likely to interact with their elected officials in a meaningful way. The result is that they are much more likely to know their local representatives than their national representatives, and so make more informed choices when voting.

But how true is that? Are people more involved locally? Do they know, and interact, with their state and local officials? One way to measure that is to look at the election of national, state and local officials. If voting trends and familiarity with elected officials are any indication, there is far less democracy at the local level than at the national level. Presidential elections typically get about 55% – 60% of the vote. (Good news, voting has been inching up lately, in part, I believe, due to increased political discussion on talk radio and coverage on cable news, and also due to the effect of social media.) In 2012, approximately 72% of registered voters actual cast ballots, but because not all of those who are eligible to vote are registered, the actually voting rate for potentially eligible voters was 54%.

In off-year national elections, for Senators and Representatives, the turn-out number is typically closer to 40%. In 2010 for example, voter turnout was 41% nationwide. In state specific elections voter turnout averages around 25%. In the 2011 Kentucky election in which all “Constitutional Officers” (meaning Governor, Secretary of State, etc.), turn-out was just over 28%. In the hotly contested Governor’s race in Virginia in 2013, turnout was about 37%. In local elections, for example for mayor, or for things like bond issues, voter turn-out is typically closer to 10%. In the recent city election in Houston (for mayor, city council, a ballot measure asking whether or not to tear down the Astrodome) voter turnout was about 13 percent.
By the measure of voting, local elections have far lower turnout than national elections: the higher the office on the ballot the greater the turnout. If the number of people at the polls are taken as a measure of democracy and citizen participation, then state and local elections are far less democratic than national elections. Based on these results, it is almost laughable to say that state and local elections are more democratic than national elections. It is laughable to suggest that people are more involved.

[Much of this data is from the George Mason University’s United States Election Project, available at http://elections.gmu.edu/index.html. See also, Information Please at http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0781453.html. And NonProfit Vote at www.nonprofitvote.org]

Most people are also much less familiar with their local elected officials than their national officials. In public opinion surveys, a surprisingly low number of people know the names of their elected representatives. While most people know the President, the numbers drop quickly from there. Only about 65% can name their state’s governor, and only about half can name their United States Senator, and barely 25% can name both Senators. [http://www.aei.org/article/society-and-culture/america-already-is-europe/ ]

I suspect less than half can name their U.S. Representative and far fewer can name their state senator or representative. In my highly unscientific poll of my friends and neighbors, almost none know the name of their state senator or representatives. Fewer still can name their council members, though most know who the Mayor is. This despite the fact that most of my friends are highly politically engaged. And don’t even get me started on state or local judges.

So how is government closer to the people when most people have no idea who their state or local representatives are? How is it more democratic when fewer people actually participate? And what does this say about this particular conservative explanation of federalism? It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
[See, http://www.people-press.org/topics/public-knowledge/. http://www.people-press.org/2007/04/15/public-knowledge-of-current-affairs-little-changed-by-news-and-information-revolutions/ ]

There is also far less news coverage of state and local political issues. The local media reports on fires and robberies, but very little on governmental affairs. There is certainly some political reporting, but it is nowhere near the level as on the national stage. My local news paper (the Lexington Herald-Leader) reports on major issues when the legislature is in session, but it is rarely front page news. This is in stark contrast to the media interest in events in Washington DC. There are literally dozens of major news outlets watching every aspect of Congress and the Federal government, but only a few watching state government. And except for the big issues, almost none at the local level.

2014 is an election year for both state and national offices, but in Kentucky at least, most of the political news involves the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Senator, and Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, and the Democratic challenger, current Kentucky Secretary of State Alisson Lundregan Grims. It is certainly a big race, but it seems to take almost all of the ink away from most every other race.

This lack of knowledge and participation in the political process at the local level is not only less democratic, it leaves open a far greater possibility for undue influence. Take a local bond issue, for example. If less than 10% of the voting public participates, a group might be able to sway the results with a few hundred extra votes. And if prosecutions for political malfeasance is any indication, there is far more corruption at the local or state level than at the national level.

Because of the lack of knowledge and participation in state and local issues, a small group of influential people can have enormous sway over local elected officials and over local elections. That is one of the reasons that many activist groups have shifted their tactics to the state level. There are a number of conservative groups, like ALEC and the NRA, that are pushing many bills at the state level because they know that they have more influence, and are far less susceptible to opposition from an informed electorate. In many cases the public is surprised when certain bills get passed.

The reality is that if you want to influence legislation it is much easier to do it at the local level than at the national level. Most state legislators and local council members are part time politicians, so they have little time to invest in learning about complex issues. They generally have few staff members, and are generally poorly paid for the level of responsibility they bear. The end result is that they are much easier to influence than national level politicians.

So, basically, the conservative argument in favor of this aspect of federalism is simply false. And this makes me wonder whether their calls for “federalism” are really about democracy, or more about influence.

Author: Mike

I am a patent attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. My law firm web site is http://www.coblenzlaw.com. I ran for State Representative in 2010 and lost in the primary. Many of these posts are based on writing that I did for that election. Rather than delete it all, I decided to dump it onto the internet.

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