A version of the following column appeared in CL's 2012 Election Guide and has been adapted with permission from the author.
We're nearing the end of a relatively short campaign season that will decide who will effectively lead city government and Atlanta Public Schools for the next four years. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent urging you to go to the polls and vote for one candidate or the other.
In the face of these appeals by email, robocalls, social media, and in all the other ways the candidates have begged for our votes, I'd like to add my voice as well. Not to ask you to send a particular candidate to the mayor's office, Atlanta City Council's chambers, or the APS headquarters — but to be a good citizen in your community.
Voting is both a right — one that has only gradually been extended to all U.S. citizens — and a responsibility of citizenship.
Initially, only property-owning white males exercised the right to vote, with former slaves, women, and those who rent their homes gradually added to the electorate. Here in Georgia and other Southern states, the right of African-Americans to vote was only guaranteed by an act of Congress less than 50 years ago.
In the face of some rather cynical efforts to again restrict the right of some to vote, those of us who are registered ought to do so. The obligation to vote is also the responsibility of all citizens, just as citizens share other responsibilities such as paying taxes, serving on a jury, obeying laws, and defending the country, if required.
A longtime member and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, often said that "all politics is local." O'Neill understood this to mean that, in deciding issues involving the nation or even the world, he tried to imagine how the decision would affect the lives of the people in his old neighborhood of North Cambridge, Mass.
O'Neill realized that the political process in the Boston area had made it possible for poor Irish immigrants and their children to improve their lives by providing access to housing, jobs, and all the privileges that are taken for granted as part of our "American way of life." This election is no exception. We should consider the impact of our vote on the issues that most directly affect us. While we most often focus our attention on Washington, D.C., and the race for the White House, it's important to remember the local elections — some of which could most affect our quality of life.
For example, the issue of transportation is one that most residents of Atlanta would agree affects our lives every day. How we move around — by car, public transit, bicycle, or foot — is an issue that is influenced by the candidates for state and congressional offices, who are responsible for much of the funding that supports our transportation options. People may have other issues that more directly affect them, such as health care or public safety, which are influenced by decisions made by our representatives at the state or national level. Or energy bills, which are decided by the Georgia Public Service Commission.
This year, Atlantans are casting ballots for mayor, city council members, and APS board members. These are elected positions that arguably most affect residents' daily lives. The mayor sets the agenda and vision for the city and the city council provides oversight. In addition, it is often the link between residents and the services that pick up their trash and police their streets. APS is in charge of making sure young people get a quality education. The decisions by both bodies of government also play out in your quality of life and property values — as well as property taxes.
To paraphrase a bumper-sticker slogan, we need to "think nationally and act locally." Our duty as citizens in the community and in the nation is to decide what issues most directly affect the quality of our lives.
Then, we should cast our ballots for the candidates for office who will do the best job providing this framework for us.
And after that, we need to keep tabs on the political process, the issues, and the people we elect. As I often told my students: "citizenship is not a spectator sport." You can't stand on the sidelines.
Each of our votes is important. Please join me in voting in this election so that we can be a part of this vital process.
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