High taxes. Pollution. Draconian regulations. Unacceptably weak/strong gun laws. Police brutality. Annoying traffic laws. The three-person housing rule. “Thanks Obama?”
Not so fast — in a year when foreign affairs and populist agendas have commanded attention, the enduring importance of local government has been easy to ignore. Ironically, with all of the recent focus on imagined corruption and real gridlock in Washington, the local issues have been ignored, and those may have the largest impact on RIT students.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: your vote matters. You’ve probably heard and seen it so often on social media that it becomes a bit sickening, but this is one media trend that may have some merit.
Even if you didn't register to vote this election, local elections happen often and in off-years, depending on where you live. Unlike federal elections, in which your vote is counted among millions and then weighted and interpreted by the electoral college, local elections are direct. And better yet, the power of your vote is concentrated: New York State Assembly members Harry Bronson and David Gantt each serve 130,000 constituents in the area and are up for re-election this November.
Local and state elections are not glamorous. You wouldn’t even be reading this article if it weren’t a primary election year. That’s a shame, since so much of our local leadership is elected in off-years like 2015 when no one is paying attention. Even in general election years like this one, important local elections are ignored. Just recently, Bill Nojay won the Republican primary several days after he took his own life pending a corruption investigation. Incumbents always have an advantage, but with the level of scrutiny given to deleted emails and offensive tweets, having a pulse should be a minimal qualification for media attention.
Camille Howard, a volunteer for RIT’s ROAR the Vote and second year Film and Animation major, notes that even though voting for president seems disappointing this year, there are still senate elections and local elections.
“Making people aware that the president is not the only person you can vote for,” is important, she said. “I think that’s the stuff that is really going to affect your life. It’s not going to be what the president says about Syria as much as it’s going to be about what your school board says about the fifth grade curriculum or something like that.”
For a touch of context on why local legislature matters: the New York State Assembly and Senate made the rule that Uber can’t operate in upstate New York, including Rochester, and Henrietta’s housing rules, long the bane of RIT commuters, went into effect years ago and hasn’t been substantitively challenged since. Andrea Shaver, president of Student Government, suggested that local government is more important than students realize.
“A lot of the government issues that affect students are on the local level," Shaver said. "It’s a shame when students don't vote, because their voice isn't heard on the issues that can really affect them.”
"It's a shame when students don't vote, because their voice isn't heard on the issues that can really affect them."
We all know that politicians work for voters. When you don’t vote, that’s a clear message to politicians to work for the citizens who did. According to The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 59 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds who could have voted in the 2012 primary election didn’t, while 66.3 percent of voters above age 30 cast their votes in the same election. And while students don’t vote as consistently as other groups, it is clear that they care about local issues — whether they know it or not.
Howard noted that sometimes people put local elections on the back burner because they may think it’s just not as important. “I think that [voters] just forget and assume that it’s just going to work itself out, but that’s not how the government works,” she said.
It is not just the legislative and executive branch that you can vote for in the upcoming election. Judges are also up for election in both local and state courts. These judges decide how laws will be applied and interpreted. As their title implies, judges exercise their judgment in determining sentences and, in many cases, verdicts. There’s an open position for the New York State Supreme Court, and additional openings for a town justice in Brighton, a court judge in Rochester and Family and County Court judges in Monroe County. Judges and justices are elected for long terms — often 10 years or more — and have more influence than you might think.
Not convinced that you should be looking down the ballot as you vote this November? Even if you don’t plan to vote for your local justices or state officials, at the very least consider voting in the Congressional elections. At the federal level for New York, Sen. Chuck Schumer and House Rep. Louise Slaughter are both up for re-election this year.
Both candidates have public voting records that you can see for yourself — there’s no need to make an uninformed choice. GovTrack is an excellent and friendly resource for you to learn more about what’s going on in Congress, which may be extremely relevant to students. Schumer’s entertainingly titled "ROBOCOP" bill would work to stop annoying robocalls. Slaughter has previously voted to reduce the interest rate on Stafford loans, and her website states support for protecting the Pell grant, which many RIT students rely on for funding.
There are 89,500 local governments in the U.S., 50 state governments and, of course, our eminently prominent federal union. Even if you vote in a home community outside of the Rochester area, do take some time to familiarize yourself with the issues.
"Being aware of the process and being aware of how important your vote actually is, I think, is really empowering," Howard said.
“Being aware of the process and being aware of how important your vote actually is, I think, is really empowering."
When you inevitably grow tired of pointless email probes and Kardashian-style coverage of Trump’s latest tweet, take a look at your local and state governments. You might be surprised at the options you find.