Just two weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, a 24-year old black man was arrested on a sidewalk in his hometown of Evanston, Illinois. Inspired to get more involved in politics, Devon Reid was collecting signatures for his petition to run for city clerk when a local police officer detained him. He was released from custody a few hours later without being charged, but the challenges to his candidacy didn’t end there. Reid went on to face a city council hearing to determine whether he should be thrown off the ballot for not having filed his paperwork correctly – an allegation made by his opponent’s wife.
Reid persisted in his campaign, recruiting a team of young people to help. In April, in one of the country’s many little noticed local elections, Reid won 66% of the vote, unseated the two-term incumbent, and became the youngest city clerk in Evanston. In his new role, Reid oversees the city’s elections and is responsible for making government activity more transparent. He also now works closely with the city officials who oversee the very police department that arrested him during his campaign.
There are more than 500 local offices like Reid’s up for election this year. Many of these races will determine who serves as the next mayor, city councilor, school board leader, or judge. In New Jersey and Virginia, the election will determine the next governor and make-up of their state legislatures. But these off-year elections don’t get much attention. We tend to prefer the drama of national elections and showdowns in Congress. Most politicians running for local office only reach out to voters they're sure will vote in a local election and that has historically been older, wealthier, white people -- leaving a lot of us unaware that an election is even happening.
By only voting in federal elections every two or four years, we miss a huge opportunity. The officials elected in the 2017 elections can have a bigger impact on your day-to-day life than the president or any single member of Congress.
Local officials are responsible for the implementation or enforcement of many issues young people care about (and are paying attention to) at the national level. Take immigration reform. Three quarters of Millennials in the United States want young people who were brought here without documentation when they were children to be allowed to stay in the country. While your local officials cannot overturn Trump’s executive order or vote on federal legislation, mayors and city council members are able to designate sanctuary cities and refuse to lend local resources to enforce deportation of these Dreamers.
Need another reason to vote in 2017? Consider how few people vote in local elections. With such low turnout, your vote matters a lot more. Just look at the mayoral election in San Antonio, Texas. In June, a group of young activists, MOVE San Antonio, helped increase the share of the youth vote from 3% to 9% through a combination of voter registration drives, voter guides, and election reminders. By turning out an extra 4,250 people, MOVE San Antonio tripled the influence young people had in the election and helped unseat the sitting mayor. The result is a new mayor who supports many of the issues young people in the community support, including an ambitious affordable housing package. As a bonus, the new mayor knows he is accountable to the young people who helped him win.
The 2016 election gave young people a lot of reasons to pay attention and get politically active. A lot of us are doing things that we’ve never done before: there are an unprecedented number of people marching in the streets, calling Congress, showing up at town hall meetings. It’s all great. But the real test is showing up for local elections this year. Make sure you’re registered to vote at your current address, go to your state’s election page to find out when your local elections are, mark your calendar to show up, and tell your friends to do the same. Political power starts, as Reid’s story did, at the local level. Find out where your polling place is and head to the polls on Tuesday, November 7th and get yours.