Local Participation and Inequality

November 2020

Local governments shape the services and resources available to millions of Americans. Despite their importance in the daily lives of residents, citizen engagement in local government remains minimal and unequal. Understanding this low participation is critical to improving local democratic accountability. Yet the paucity of local election data has traditionally posed a serious obstacle to the systematic study of local political participation.

More recently, however, an interdisciplinary group of urban scholars has amassed novel new data sets—ranging from voter files with millions of observations to portals that record conversations in marginalized communities—to illuminate the dynamics of local residents’ political engagement. Thus far, however, much of the work has been siloed by policy area, methodology, and discipline. Perhaps more importantly, research is often isolated from many of the governments and nonprofit groups for whom citizen engagement and democratic accountability are central missions.

This seminar would bring together this diverse set of scholars, policymakers, and advocates in one place. Our sessions will highlight a new set of research questions and community engagement practices focused on the needs of cities and neighborhoods. We also hope to improve data collection and sharing practices, allowing for more systematic and generalizable insights into local political engagement. Better collaboration across the scholars in this field could create more systematic data sets usable across multiple studies, which could also be leveraged for practitioner use. In short, this conference will serve as a launchpad for community-engaged research that uses best practices for generating and analyzing systematic local politics data.