“Who’s Andrew Cuomo?” 

Today this might seem like a ridiculous question, given the New York governor’s rising popularity while leading New York’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, barely two years ago this was a question that I would often get whenever I mentioned to my high school classmates that I was volunteering on the governor’s re-election campaign. Even though we lived in New York, most of my peers had no idea who their governor was. They didn’t know and didn’t care about the elected official who two years later would have the power to close down the state during a pandemic. 

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that elected officials at all levels of government have immense power and immense responsibilities. That is why it is so important that people pay attention to who their elected officials are and make their voices heard in every election. 

Do you know who your mayor is? How about your state senator? Most people have no idea who most of their elected officials are. This is especially true among college students. I have even been in political science classes at the University of Michigan where, when asked to name their governor or member of Congress, many students draw a blank.  

Not only do many young people not know who all their elected officials are, but they also do not vote in local elections to choose these officials. 

For many young people, the only election that they focus on is the presidential race. This makes sense. Even someone who does not follow politics at all still hears about the presidential election. From our classrooms to our social media feeds, there is often an emphasis placed on the presidential election, which is often considered the election with the most importance. 

However, the truth is, your vote for city council members, mayor, governor or school board will almost certainly have more of an impact on your daily life than a presidential election. 

During this pandemic, we have seen the importance of officials at all levels of government. We have seen how having a competent governor can be the difference between life and death. Governors like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom have implemented comprehensive science-based lockdown and reopening strategies that have helped to curb the deadly virus. At the same time, we have seen contradictory actions of other governors such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp who went against the scientific community and quickly re-opened his state, a decision which has caused their COVID-19 case numbers to spike. 

This pandemic has also demonstrated the power of other state and local officials. In Michigan, we have seen the state legislature use their power to try to stop the stay-at-home order and the subsequent power of an appointed state judge to uphold the order.

Additionally, the importance of local officials extends far beyond a pandemic. Local officials play a huge role in everything from the quality of roads to funding programs in our communities. 

One of the clearest examples of the power of local officials is the Flint Water Crisis. In Flint, Mich., egregious actions taken by former Gov. Rick Snyder and his appointed emergency managers allowed for residents to continue to use lead-tainted water, an action with lasting health effects for the residents of Flint.

Officials at all levels of government have an enormous influence on our communities. This is why it is so important that young people vote in every election. Research has shown that most of the people who vote in elections are older Americans. This means that the decisions impacting our communities will be made by officials who do not represent us and instead represent the interests of those who actually voted. 

Local elections are a time when our voices can truly be heard. So few people vote in local elections that it is a time when your vote can have a major impact. In 2010, current state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, ran for Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and won his primary by just two votes. There are many stories just like this about local races across the country where the outcome came down to a handful of votes. This shows the power of your vote in local races — you can literally be the deciding factor in an election. 

As we look to the future and think about the world that we want to create, it is more important now than ever that young people make our voices heard. Through our vote, we have the power to decide who is leading our communities. This is an amazing opportunity for all of us to make meaningful change and help create the world that we want to see. 

Isabelle Schindler can be reached at ischind@umich.edu

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