Early voting starts this Thursday for local elections, and local efforts are underway to motivate students to vote.
College-aged voters represent a significant portion of the electorate in Orange County. In the 2016 general election, where over 82,800 ballots were cast, 19 percent were cast by voters between the ages of 18 and 25.
“I think local elections are especially important because your vote wields the most power in those elections and because college students are an integral part of the Chapel Hill community,” said Brian Fields, undergraduate director of state and external affairs for student government.
Jacob Greenblatt, president of the UNC Young Democrats, said local officials have authority over a wide range of issues that affect students such as zoning, transit, environmental sustainability and others.
“I think sometime students think that we live at UNC in sort of a bubble and that’s really not true,” he said. “The mayor, the town council and to a lesser extent the school board, they all have a huge impact on our daily lives here.”
Greenblatt also said the Town Council serves as the moral voice of Chapel Hill — something the University is not always able to do.
“A year and a half ago, right after the passage of House Bill 2, the town council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the bill,” Greenblatt said. “That was something UNC administration and Chancellor (Carol) Folt, understandably, couldn’t necessarily take a side on.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger called for the removal of Silent Sam in August, which the university administration has also had to dodge taking a position on, Greenblatt said.
“So, I think we see the town council and the mayor impact our lives in numerous ways and it’s critical that students have a voice in that,” he said.
Fields said since students support the economy, are foundational to the culture of the town and live here for the majority of the year, they need to get involved in local elections.
Both Greenblatt and Fields said attending council meetings, serving on advisory boards, going to community events, and getting to know neighbors are ways students can become involved in local politics.
Yet other students have found even more ambitious methods of getting involved by simply running for office.
Mark Chilton, the current Orange County Register of Deeds, decided to run for Chapel Hill Town Council when he was a UNC senior in 1991. He won the seat and became the youngest elected official in North Carolina, and later served four terms as Mayor of Carrboro in 2005.
Chilton was inspired when he had joined an environmental advocacy group on campus. Many of the issues they had advocated for involved local government issues such as transit and recycling programs. While he served on council he worked to expand recycling services to apartment complexes and to keep bus fares down.
“It did take me one extra year to graduate, but it was definitely a great experience for me and I think it was good for the town of Chapel Hill as well,” he said.
Chilton also said another former UNC student, Gerry Cohen, made a significant impact on the community.
“Gerry is the person, with his political allies, (who) founded Chapel Hill Transit," he said. "A UNC student serving on the town council is part of how we even have a bus system in Chapel Hill."
While no student is running this election cycle, Chilton hopes to see more run in the future due to the impact they can have on the town.
“Student involvement in local government is part of the reason we have such a strong public transportation system and as many sidewalks and bike lanes in Chapel Hill and Carrboro as we do,” he said.
Eugene Farrar, write-in candidate for Chapel Hill Mayor, said that student involvement in local politics will only make the town better for everyone.
“If you invest in where you go to school at or where you live at, you take a little more pride in decisions,” he said. “You take a little more pride in where you live and you take a little more pride in wanting to help out.”
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