Between the failure of the federal voting rights legislation, the for-now death of filibuster reform, and a U.S. Supreme Court majority that is vehemently against protecting access to the polls, it is tempting to dip into a state of hopelessness about the future of democracy.
But hopelessness doesn’t solve the problem. These losses come with clarity about where the fight really is: Pro-democracy forces can win if we focus our efforts in a targeted way on the local races that have the power to affect meaningful change.
Take a step back and look at the structure of our elections apparatus. In the United States, we do not have one single election. We have 50 state elections, 3,000+ county elections and thousands more city- and town-level elections. Those elections are run by a hodgepodge of positions with titles that range from city or county clerk to recorder of deeds to election judge to even some judgeships or tax assessors. Even positions like city council or county executive can touch election administration, making decisions about budget allocation or appointments to key oversight boards.
Election subversion in 2024 probably won’t look like the Jan. 6 violent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, in part because the anti-democracy movement won’t require that kind of horrifying splash. Instead, the 2024 election will be decided by one county clerk in one state who refuses to count all the votes, or a city council that appoints an election supervisor who then opens understaffed polling locations, or a county executive that zeros out the election administration budget.
Democracy will end not in a single speech or a congressional vote but in one person in one county who won one election.
Which means the flip is also true: One person in one county who wins one election can save democracy, too. We just don’t know which one person or county or election it’ll be, so we have to try and fight for them all.
This is not an easy project — there are literally thousands of these races on the ballot — but tactically, it’s simple. The elections for these positions are typically small with margins of victory that often fall to the single digits. A little bit goes a long way in these elections. Sometimes it’s as easy as fielding a candidate!
So if you’re the kind of person who spent any part of 2017 and 2018 trying to flip the House, or spent 2019 and 2020 trying to get Trump out of the White House, and or maybe you got involved in early 2021 trying to win the Georgia Senate runoffs, your next steps are clear: Get involved in local elections.
The biggest time commitment but most meaningful thing you can do is run for office yourself. Run for Something has an online tool where you can look up what offices are on the ballot in 2022 — in most states, it’s not too late to get on the ballot this year. Once you sign up, we’ll get you all the info you need to actually file, set up a campaign and make it all the way through to election day. I won’t pretend otherwise: Running for office is hard, and in 2022 and 2023, it’ll be even harder, but it is the most important thing you can do for our democracy, and win or lose, you will be instrumental to making a change in your community.
If you’re not ready to run just yet, you can make just as big a difference by investing your time and money toward local races. The key here is to think beyond the typical presidential battlegrounds — yes, the local races in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania will matter, but so will local elections in Kansas (where there’s a Democratic governor) and Montana (where there’s a Democratic senator). Even in deep-red states, it only takes one conspiracy-minded local elected official or even secretary of state to give Fox News enough material for weeks of reporting. We have to root out the extremists everywhere they are.
And bad news, they are everywhere. Steve Bannon is on his podcast calling for thousands of poll workers and precinct captains to step up and lead. Michael Flynn’s call to run for local office is pinned to the top of the main QAnon forum. As he tends to do, former President Donald Trump is saying the quiet part out loud, making it clear he believes the person who counts the ballots is more important than the candidate on the ballot and promising to make supervisors of elections his number one priority in 2022.
We have to do the same. We have to put the same amount of urgency and passion toward winning locally as we did toward winning nationally in the last three big election cycles.
Winning will feel different this time around. The big scary villain isn’t any single person that makes for an easy scary story, and the hero isn’t some knight on a horse coming to rescue us (or some senator passing a bill). It’s just us, making change in our communities, fighting like our democracy depends on it.
Amanda Litman is the co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, which recruits and supports young, diverse progressives running for local office — since 2017, they’ve identified more than 90,000 young people across the country who want to run. She’s also the author of the book, “Run for Something: A Real Talk Guide to Fixing the System Yourself,” and previously hosted two podcasts, “Run for Something: The Podcast” on Dear Media and “Battleground” from The Recount.