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Cover Story: Voting 101 - 2012

All politics is local

We're nearing the end of a long campaign season that will decide who will serve as president of the United States. Across the country, a record $2 billion is being spent urging you to go to the polls and vote for one candidate or the other.

In the face of these appeals on television, by email, robocalls, social media, and in all the other ways the candidates for president 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 White House — 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.

This is an election only for people running for national and state offices, so why did I say you should vote in order to be a good citizen in your community?

A long-time 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 most attention is focused on the presidential race, it's important to remember the other contests on the ballot — some of which could most affect our qualities 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. Next year, Atlantans will cast ballots for mayor and city council members, elected positions which arguably most affect residents' daily lives. Whatever the issue, I encourage you to think about how it affects you on a local level.

In my role as a professor of public management and policy, I study local issues, so why am I encouraging you to vote in this election? (After all, there's not a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democratic way to fix a pothole or pave a street.) Our state and national governments provide the framework in which these local issues play out.

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 national election — and on the rest of the ballot — so that we can be a part of this vital process.

Harvey Newman is a professor and former chair of the department of public management and policy at Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

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