By Steve Huerta
This year as struggling families in San Antonio, Texas open their holiday gifts, they should also remember they have a gift far more valuable than any trinket they receive. It is a gift that is vital to their future and keeps on giving when they use it. It is the gift of the ballot box. It is your voice expressed in your vote.
But not nearly enough people remember to use this gift. In Bexar County and its county seat, San Antonio, there are more than 900,000 registered voters. Yet only about a third of them turn out during gubernatorial races and a little more than half - 53 to 56 percent - turn out during presidential elections.
"This might sound like good results until you take a closer look," says Prentice Dean, a campaign organizer with Professional Campaign Services, an international political consulting group. "In local elections where people are most impacted, we have the lowest results."
The traditional voter is 65 and older, he says. "It's my grandmother and yours who are voting. Only about three percent of voters 30 or younger are coming out."
He says it is important to vote for all races because candidates at all levels play vital roles in our lives. He gives an example of judicial races where he says, "There are people running for judicial seats that decide who goes to jail or whether or not you get to see your children and a whole host of other matters that go before both civil and criminal courts."
He says there needs to be more voter education efforts to support people in struggling communities in San Antonio.
Henry Rodriguez, a civil rights activist with the League of United Latin American Citizen (LULAC) Zapatista Council 4383, says "Local elections are just as important, but voters in disadvantaged communities don't care to come out and vote in local elections as they do in presidential ones.
"Unless there is a voter trigger, they just don't come out for local elections," he says. He adds, "It's a combination of unmotivated voters, lack of voter education and a serious lack of investment in election campaigns to get voters out in under developed communities."
Rodirguez says he is worried that when voters are not educated on the candidates or issues or don't vote, then the people who win office may not be the most able or qualified. And in the end, families and their communities are the ones to suffer, he says.
"Across the board our voter turnout is poor," says author Tyron Darden, who advocates for stronger turnout in the African American community. "It's a big impact in poor communities, peel back the onion and take a look at the trends on how resources are distributed.
"We are in a voting crisis," he says.
"Not being counted, means you're not being noticed," says Linda Montellano, National Women's Commissioner for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "Health care, education for their children and having a prosperous future are important issues for women and their families."
She says when women vote, they are making their issues and concerns heard and placing a stake in what society will be like for their children's future.
These grassroots leaders working tirelessly in the Alamo city to empower residents see the negative consequences that directly impacts their communities when voters don't come out in local elections. "It's the school board, city, county and state elections that more directly affect us," says Rodriguez.
Low voter turnout among working families in impoverished communities has a serious and wide-ranging impact on their social and economic well-being.
For example, formerly incarcerated people who can vote in local elections can play a role in electing candidates that want to reform the criminal justice system, from the time of arrest to getting before a judge, all the way to the capitol in Austin where the laws are made. As a formerly incarcerated person, it is my fate being decided. But it doesn't have to be that way without me and others like me deciding who gets to make those decisions.
When voters turn their back on the gift of voting, the result is an unbalanced investment in families struggling to make the month's rent, or to put food on the table. Public safety goes unattended with little or no investment in simple things, such as lighting dark streets or funding after- school programs.
The presidential election is next year and San Antonio hasn't seen record voter outcomes since President Obama ran in 2008, but 2016 also brings races for eight state representatives, three Senate district seats, two county commissioners, four constables, one sheriff, 12 district courts judges, two justices of the peace, one county tax collector and a host of other federal and statewide slots.
Will people vote in the presidential elections and continue on to vote down the ballot and raise their voices in all elections next year? I can only hope. Because as we celebrate the holidays this year and prepare for a new start next year, all I want for Christmas is for my vote to have teeth.
Huerta is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.
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