At Princeton, we are inundated with messages that emphasize the necessity of civic engagement. For example, the Vote100 campaign urges Princetonians to vote in national elections, with a mission to achieve 100 percent voter turnout on campus.
As of publishing this piece, tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 5, is Election Day. Citizens in Princeton and across the state and nation, however, will not be voting for presidential and Senate candidates, who so often dominate the political landscape. Rather, they will be voting on local candidates and measures.
Becoming well-versed in national politics is admirable; national politics ought to command more of our attention. With a voter turnout of 55 percent in the 2016 presidential election, it is crucial that we incentivize and encourage national voter participation.
National politics, however, consume the overwhelming majority of media attention and thus obscure local government, a possibly more impactful level of politics.
Before I launch into my crusade for local politics, ask yourself the following: in your hometown, what is the name of your mayor? Can you name any of your council members? What about the members of your local school board, many of whom your city or town elected and who have control over the school you attended?
Now that you have considered these questions for your own home, what about local representatives for the town of Princeton? Though the municipal building is a few minutes from campus, I would guess that few students know the representatives’ names.
I assume most of us can’t answer those questions (that majority included me, until I worked with my city government over the summer). What little push there is for civic engagement in schools largely concerns the national level. Many of us are unaware of how local politics function or how we can participate. For example, between 2012 and 2014, an average of just 19 percent of Americans contacted local elected officials.
In light of our collective failure to engage, I not only believe that local government ought to be elevated into the public line of sight, but also I feel that it should take firm precedence over national politics.
First, the work done by city and town governments is often much more tangible and impactful in the context of our day-to-day lives. Local representatives manage zoning, transportation, and, perhaps most importantly, education. Thus, the businesses you see on Nassau Street and the quality of local public schools are a result of the work of the Princeton Council and an elected Board of Education.
Second, local government, because of its scale and sphere of influence, is the most accessible way to make an impact. There is an open door for you to make your voice heard in the community; all you have to do is contact a representative or show up to a council meeting. And your voice can most often translate into an immediate change for your community.
These representatives are much more accessible to the public than, for example, a state or national senator might be. (Mayor Liz Lempert of Princeton holds office hours in the Princeton Public Library!)
Understanding and becoming involved in local politics empowers citizens. With more people speaking up, local politicians are more aware of the needs of their community. More importantly, citizens can forge real connections with their politicians.
In a time when faith in government is shockingly low, increased engagement in local politics may be a concrete solution for restoring the severed connection between citizens and their representatives. Through my interactions with the Cincinnati council members and their staff, I developed a deep appreciation for their work, and my political cynicism somewhat dampened.
No longer were my representatives distant or opaque figures; instead, they were concrete and personable individuals. This new personal connection with government officials also prompted me to participate and advocate in local politics — perhaps my experience could be instructive for others.
As Princeton students, we should take it upon ourselves to know the names of local representatives and the avenues through which we can make our voices heard.
Emma Treadway is a sophomore from Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.