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The list of issues that affect our day-to-day lives goes on and on: body cameras on police officers; well-maintained roads; bike lanes; fair and affordable housing; property taxes; parks and libraries; garbage collection; good schools; and the fight over the $15 minimum wage.
Unfortunately, with the global impact of last year’s presidential election still being discussed, local officials tend to get short shrift — but they shouldn’t.
Mayors and city councilmembers make decisions that have direct and almost immediate effect on local residents. In many cases, a majority vote is all it takes for a city to raise sales taxes, change a noise ordinance or rezone a neighborhood for development. Because many smaller cities have five members per council, decisions can be made by as few as three people.
Historically, voter turnout is lower for local elections compared to presidential and congressional races. Could this year’s hotly contested battles for mayor in both Minneapolis and St. Paul change that dynamic?
When we connect the dots between the somewhat abstract policies and regulations created in Congress and the reality of implementing those changes at street level, the importance of city elections becomes very clear.
In Minneapolis, 13 City Council seats are being contested this year along with spots on the Park and Recreation Board. In St. Paul, three seats on the school board will be on the ballot. Check the Minnesota Secretary of State website for elections in other cities.
What can we as students do?
When college students vote in droves, politicians will take notice. There are now as many Millennials as Baby Boomers — though the latter has a much higher voter turnout.
Of course, Metro State students do not constitute an easily identified voting bloc. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make an impact. For every college major, student group and area of advocacy, there is a way to make a discernable difference through local government.
Here are a few examples:
- Environment. Local officials can address broad issues such as climate change by becoming leaders in clean energy. Some cities have invested in geothermal and wind energy to power city-run facilities.
- Housing. If you are interested in fair and affordable housing, identifying faulty practices at the neighborhood level can help individuals immediately and bring awareness of the issue to other levels of government.
- College readiness and tuition. While city governments do not have the power to reduce college tuition, and school boards cannot change the state’s per-pupil funding formula for public schools, they can be strong advocates for the students and families in their cities. Local officials can also work together to create tutoring, mentoring and school readiness programs.
For many big issues — homelessness, job (re)training, opioid abuse — cities are the testing grounds for innovative policies. What do you care deeply about? Economic opportunities, health care or criminal justice reform? Don’t doubt there is a way to address it at the city level.
And that is often the first step. No, actually that’s the second step. The first step is to vote in the citywide elections on (or before) Nov. 7.