“National elections always steal the spotlight. People tend to overlook the far greater number of contests that occur down ballot. But these offices—so-called subnational government—are of tremendous scale and significance. According to some estimates, there are more than a million subnational governments globally, including those at the state, provincial, county, and municipal levels. A large number of these offices are selected through the democratic process, and the share of resources they manage and the extent of their responsibilities continue to grow. Elected officials outside national capitals decide on issues such as urban planning, school curricula, and health and safety regulations. Most basic services, including water, sanitation, schooling, and policing, are also determined below the national level.

“Despite the impact of subnational governance on people’s lives, these elections routinely post lower turnout rates than national races. Yet the evidence shows that the top motivators for political engagement globally—issues including health care, poverty, and education—tend to be handled at the subnational level. So why don’t voters pay more attention to their local governments, which address the issues they care about most?

“This contradiction is the result of shortcomings in how power is transferred and shared with lower levels of government. It also calls into question the belief that government that is closer to the people is more accountable to the people. Formal participation in the democratic process is necessary for accountability and an indicator of citizen confidence in democracy. Although citizens of some advanced democracies trust local government more than national government, waning political participation will erode public confidence in local officeholders, their performance—and perhaps democracy itself. … “

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