It’s November, which means it is election month, and with 2020 right around the corner, it is time to start talking about voting. And no, not just the presidential election, I mean truly voting, and that goes for state and local elections as well. I know presidential elections are the sexy elections. They get much media attention and they gear up years in advance. We have been suspecting Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker would be vying for the presidential seat since the devastating loss of Hilary Clinton to Donald Trump in 2016. This article, though, is not about the presidential race, but more about why millennials must get out and vote EVERY election, and why it is our responsibility to educate each other about its importance.
I will be the first to admit that I was one of the many people in this country who only voted during presidential elections. I turned 18 a month before President Obama’s first win and the excitement that filled that election was like none I have seen since. I stood in a line on my college campus for three hours just to cast my first vote and then I did not vote again until his re-election in 2012. I graduated from a university ranked in the top 25 in the nation, had been a history teacher and was attending an Ivy League college when finally, I understood the importance of mid-term elections. It was November 2014 and I was at Cornell working on my masters when a friend who worked in politics in Washington texted me to see if I had voted that day. I replied that I only vote in presidential elections. He called and asked, “Are you serious?”
I replied, “Yeah, I don’t care about these little elections; the presidential election is the most important so that’s all I care about.”
He was astonished. Then he decided to tell me why voting in midterm elections was just as important, if not more important than voting in presidential elections. He explained that the country would never be able to get anything done as long as Congress is in gridlock within itself and against the policies of the president. A little embarrassed, I started to pay more attention to politics that day and his explanation provided understanding for the progressive stand still our country now finds itself.
I can recall learning about the branches of government in my seventh-grade civics class – the separation of powers and the president’s right to veto – but I was not taught the reason I should vote in midterm elections, why city council elections are so crucial and what delegates mean for my community and me. All I remember are these words – I should make sure that I vote because my ancestors died for my right to vote—and so I did, but it still was not enough. So millennial voting every four years is not enough. We must do more. It is our responsibility to make sure that other people in our generation know the importance of all elections, not just presidential ones.
Since coming home to Roanoke, the number one complaint I hear when it comes to local elections is that people do not vote. There is little commitment to discussing the factors that contribute to the low voter turnout we see in these elections. I would offer there are other reasons, such as the ever-present remnants of voter suppression in this city, with some residents having to drive miles from their home to vote when there is a polling station in walking distance of their house. Yet I believe the biggest factor in the low voter turnout in local elections in Roanoke is the lack of understanding. So here’s just a couple of reasons that may resonate with millennials.
Millennials range from 22-37 years old in 2019, with many of us being parents to school-age children. Roanoke is one of a handful of cities in Virginia that still appoints school board members. While many people think that having an appointed school board is antiquated and favors social capital over true accountability to the families of our school system, the reality is that until those changes occur, city council will continue to have a direct impact on our children’s education. City council appoints our school board who chooses our superintendent, who in turn chooses our principals, who (in theory) should hire our teachers. They set the tone for the schools our children attend every day. Therefore, when city council elections come next year, pay close attention to the ways in which each candidate speaks about education. Do they believe in an equitable school system where all kids deserve a quality education despite their zip code? Do they trust that a diverse teaching staff is an asset to ALL students? What do they think, or even know about the School-to-Prison Pipeline? Answers to these questions will provide a good snapshot into what kind of school board member they will be in favor of appointment while serving on council.
Driving through downtown Roanoke, anyone can see the tremendous difference that has taken place in recent years – breweries and posh apartments in old and abandoned buildings – that house medical students to retired couples who have downsized. This economic catalyst and beautification of a once decadent Downtown Roanoke is in part thanks to our city council. On the other hand, they also have a large impact on how gentrification will reveal itself in Roanoke. In major cities throughout this country, neighborhoods that were previously minority owned are now the homes of young, white millennials. People of color are being pushed out of their neighborhoods because they can no longer afford to live in communities they grew up in, and remnants of this reality threatens Roanoke as well. The potential development of the Evans Spring community has a similar tone as the same gentrified ring that has been evidenced in Washington, Brooklyn and Chicago. And while things like the Evans Spring development have to go through the zoning commission and planning team, city council will have the final say. Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to the empathic nature of city council candidates to the needs of all communities, especially communities of color and low-income areas, because we are the ones who have the power to make a difference in how they are served.
It is a crucial time in our country, and with the emergence of social media, it has become easier for us to sit behind our computers and share something that sparks change. But let’s face it; those efforts are empty and fleeting. Voting still works. There is power in it, if not there would not have been groups trying to keep certain people from exercising their right to do so for the past century. Local governing bodies are just the tip of the iceberg. Remember state delegates are responsiblew for hot topic issues such as gun control, criminal justice surrounding the use and sell of drugs and abortion rights in our commonwealth. Just because you may not know exactly how or why elections are important does not mean it is too late to learn. Now more than ever in our lifetime, it is time to make sure that we are registered, informed and that we show up at the polls for every election. That is how our generation can make a difference in this country.