Students Don't Have to Look Far to Create Change
Updated: May 10
Local elections are the most accessible way for students to impact change in their lives and in their communities.
By Marley Fishburn, Campus Vote Project Communications Intern
In 2020, half of eligible young people voted, an 11 point increase from 2016.
As more and more young people turn out to the polls and use their voice, it is equally important to consider how they are engaging as part of their local electorate. Are students aware of the impact their local elections have on their college experience? And on the flip side, are their intersectional interests as students and young people adequately represented at the local level?
My first time voting was during the Covid-19 pandemic. On the ballot that year were, of course, the presidential candidates, along with numerous state and county elections. In addition to navigating the mail-in voting process, I took time to research the local officials and learn about the issues before I filled out my ballot. knew my vote had more weight in these elections and would determine outcomes that would affect my day to day life.
Even though I didn’t get an ‘I Voted’ sticker, I knew I had done my civic duty.
In Virginia, where I go to school at William & Mary, young people have the opportunity to cast a vote every election cycle which gives them a unique incentive to stay engaged in the democratic process year after year. In 2023, the entirety of Virginia’s state legislature is up for election, along with 161 town councils, 35 city councils, and 22 school boards. These elected officials are essential to bolstering the democratic process and directly impact student success.
Councilwoman Stacy Kern-Scheerer is a newly elected city council member of the City of Williamsburg, Virginia. She is also the Director of Clinical Programs, Director of the Immigration Clinic and Clinical Associate Professor of Law at William & Mary Law School.
She is committed to addressing student concerns and supporting their unique needs. I know this to be true because in the past year I worked with Councilwoman Kern-Scheerer to facilitate numerous university events, including a civic engagement fair and a public forum where students had the opportunity to ask city council candidates about issues affecting them the most.
Often, a campus community is like a bubble. It can be hard for students to feel connected to the broader community since student life is concentrated on campus and the temporary nature of college doesn’t incentivize getting involved in the city or town they live in. As a representative of the city and the university, Councilwoman Kern-Sheerer carries with her a unique perspective that helps bridge the gap between full-time residents and students.
“The dream is to have spaces that aren't seen as just student spaces versus, full time resident spaces,” Councilwoman Kern-Scheerer said, “and that it really does kind of foster a sense of connectivity.”
Still, there are many policies that are decided at the local level and impact students just as much as full-time residents. Infrastructure, for example, affects public transportation, bike lanes, and other avenues for travel on and around campus in an era where fewer students are driving.
Councilwoman Kern-Scheerer says she is devoted to creating policies that empower students to participate in local politics. She advocates for the development of public transit, walkability, welcoming community spaces, and more affordable off-campus housing for students.
It’s not enough for local officials to advocate for student involvement. Colleges and cities need to work together to maintain amicable relations and incentivize student participation in local politics.
The administration at William & Mary makes it easy for students to engage in local politics by canceling classes on Election Day, providing students with voter information, and developing voter engagement initiatives.
One of those initiatives is the Voter Engagement Committee, a coalition of students employed by the Office of Community Engagement, who work diligently to craft educational content, spread awareness about student issues, and provide resources to students about voting.
As a member of this committee, I have worked hard to create and maintain positive relationships with community organizations like the Williamsburg chapter of the League of Women Voters, local officials like Councilwoman Kern-Scheerer and the City Registrar, and other student organizations like the Student Assembly and political advocacy student groups. We have successfully hosted voter registration drives, speaker events, election watch parties, and more to engage our peers on campus.
This work has been incredibly formative for me. I have learned so much about event planning, community engagement, and coalition building. Now, I have the opportunity to carry these skills with me through future jobs and endeavors.
These experiences have also cemented for me how important policy is and has been a factor in my decision to stick around W&M to earn my Masters of Public Policy so I can further influence policy and lift up student voices.
The dual efforts of the university and the city have not only inspired me, but my fellow students as well. William & Mary’s voter turnout rate is one of the highest in the state, ringing in at 82.4% in 2020 compared to the national average of 66%.
And as youth voter turnout increases, young people are also staking their claim on Capitol Hill and hometown city councils.
Last year, 25 year old Maxwell Alejandro Frost became the first Gen Z member of the House of Representatives in Florida’s 10th congressional district where he is advocating for issues young people care most about, including working to end gun violence, address climate change, and reproductive rights.
Even down in the ‘burg, Caleb Rodgers sits next to Councilwoman Keern-Scheer on the Williamsburg City Council. Rodgers graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in May of 2020 and was elected into office three days later.
“The youth vote is a critical portion of any election,” Councilman Rodgers told me. “At the local-level in Williamsburg, we recently saw candidates 20+ years older than our college students campaigning for their support as eagerly as long-time residents.”
He also expressed gratitude towards students’ commitment to the democratic process.
“Since 2020's election, [the Williamsburg City] Council has been able to expand public art, affordable housing options, and develop a climate action plan, all of which were made possible by student involvement in local elections,” he said.
Young people have proven they want their voices to be heard. Local elections are the most accessible way for students to impact change in their lives and in their communities.
Now, you must certainly be wondering, “How can I make sure I am up to date on local elections?” Well, Campus Vote Project has you covered.
Find your State Voting Guide on our website. This will provide you with Election dates, registration information, official election sites, and answers to frequently asked questions.
Visit your town or city’s website and join their mailing list to stay informed about local happenings
If you want to further involve yourself with your local officials, contact them directly! They often have email and addresses on official government websites along with the schedule of open meetings you can attend.
To help educate students on your campus, view our Voter Education Campaigns guide.