Student Engagement in Elections Must Be Well-Informed

One of the first questions many Obies are asked upon arriving on campus for their first-year orientation is whether they would like to register to vote in Ohio. Several groups — student and community, partisan and nonpartisan — descend on Oberlin with voter registration forms and voter information packets.

In some years, this is an easier question to answer than others. First-years arriving on campus in fall 2016, for example, were given the opportunity to register in a swing state for one of the most heated and divisive presidential campaigns in history.

This year, however, is a different story. The local elections that will occur this Tuesday, Nov. 7 — which some students likely do not even know about — will be decided with considerably less fanfare than the showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, or even between Rob Portman and Ted Strickland. That being said, the candidates and issues Oberlin residents will vote on in a few days’ time will have an enormous impact on the community and, in many ways, the College.

Given the importance and local scope of these elections, it’s valuable to examine whether eligible students should make their voices heard, and on what issues. That debate hinges largely around the question of whether students who will no longer reside in Oberlin within a few years can truly be held accountable for the impacts that their votes have on the local community.

From the City Council race, to the school board, to the ongoing debate on Renewable Energy Certificates, among other issues, there are a variety of reasons why student voices are relevant. Issues 16 and 17, for example — the two ballot initiatives that will determine the future of Oberlin’s available REC revenue — have significant implications for the future of the city’s investment in environmental projects that will become increasingly vital as climate change continues to pose a great threat.

Furthermore, as Professor of Environmental Studies John Petersen wisely points out in his op-ed this week, “your four-year term at Oberlin is twice as long as the term of Oberlin city councilors.” Whether students choose to attend City Council meetings or not, decisions made at City Hall impact students in significant and inescapable ways. When council affirmed Oberlin’s status as a sanctuary city, it extended protections not just to long-term residents, but to students as well. If council had instead stripped protections for undocumented people, then students — documented and undocumented alike — would have had every right to engage with council. While this example is an easy one to highlight, it is representative of the very valid reasons why student voices should not just be allowed but encouraged in local issues.

Ultimately, it is foolish to turn away voters who are well-researched on local issues and politically involved in Oberlin and Ohio, as many students are. Though we may not be lifelong Oberlin residents and only live here for four or five short years, the local political climate certainly does impact our lives and paychecks, and we have a right to weigh in.

That being said, students should not walk into the voting booth on Tuesday with ill-formed opinions on issues they plan to vote on. Because many of us did not grow up in or around Oberlin, it takes a concerted effort to become acquainted with the nuances of local politics. While making that effort may seem boring or unimportant, taking time to become informed should not only be a prerequisite to voting; it should be an obligation for students interested in being conscientious and informed neighbors. In your research, you may decide that an issue is not relevant to you and that you don’t feel comfortable voting on it — an informed decision to not vote is more productive than an uninformed decision to vote.

Students take up a lot of space around Oberlin — one look into The Local Coffee & Tea or Slow Train Cafe on a weekend can tell you that. Having such a sizable presence in town comes with responsibilities, one of which is to engage responsibly as partners with community members who will remain here long after our college years end.

Students should make an effort this weekend to read up on the issues that will be appearing on Tuesday’s ballot. To begin, the Review’s Letters to the Editors sections from the past few issues provide insight into key talking points. Then, on Tuesday — with the utility bill that was placed in their OCMR — students should go and vote, if they can, on the issues and candidates that they have a well-formed opinion on. As Oberlin residents, you have the right to vote here, if eligible — but you also have an obligation to make sure that you vote responsibly. It is vital to honor that responsibility as an engaged, if short-term, member of the Oberlin community.