What two things last around four years and have a major impact on an 18 to 22-year-old’s future? An undergraduate degree and the term of your local college town mayor and the Board of Aldermen.
Oxford has upcoming races on June 8 for the seven Board of Aldermen spots and the mayorship, a race that currently features independent incumbent Robyn Tannehill running against 18-year-old Oxford native Brandon Pettis. Maybe these races seem irrelevant or insignificant, but municipal elections may play the largest role in a UM student’s campus career.
Last August, the Association of American Colleges & Universities found that 71% of college students said they were “absolutely certain” that they would vote in the 2020 presidential election, but how many students are certain that they will vote in municipal elections? Although there are major obstacles to voting in the upcoming municipal elections for many students, it is critical to make your voice heard in the community you adopt during your degree.
Restrictions in the Lafayette-Oxford-University Community prevent at least a quarter of UM students from voting in these races. Because the university is not part of Oxford city limits and instead is part of Lafayette County, students who live on campus are unable to vote for Board of Aldermen candidates. This limits the ability of the nearly 25% of students who live on campus to decide on who controls the safety and the economy of the community by which they are surrounded.
Even for the county, state and federal races in which students who live on campus can vote, there are significant challenges. There is no polling place on campus, putting students without cars at a disadvantage to access to the polls. The university community is well aware of this problem, and for the 2020 election, the Office of Community Engagement rented shuttle buses to allow on-campus students to reach the polls. However, taking the bus still drains valuable time out of a student’s inflexible weekday. For students rushing to classes on campus, traveling at least half an hour round trip to the polls poses a challenge for voter engagement.
Just a few weeks into the legislative session, committees in the Mississippi Legislature already killed HB 802, a bill that would require four-year private and public universities to have on-campus voting precincts;a similar bill was introduced in the Mississippi House of Representatives in early 2019 and died there, too.
The ASB Senate passed a resolution to show support for the legislation. Earlier in the fall of 2018, the ASB Senate passed another resolution to advocate for an on-campus polling place, but that decision was more a show of support than action, which is ultimately left up to voting officials. Another solution would be to cancel class on Election Day, but these attempts have hardly worked for federal elections, let alone municipal ones.
These stacked barriers against accessible voting make local elections seem hardly worthwhile of the time and energy required to participate in them — especially for students who only see themselves living in the LOU community for four years.
The pushes for an on-campus voting place and canceled classes matter. However, UM students feel the direct impact of local elections, even for those who are only here for a few years.
The Board of Aldermen controls the mask mandates that will determine our wellbeing. It has the power to serve as an advocate, possibly even influencing whether or not the Confederate monument leaves the Square. It makes the decisions that support the local businesses that students will hopefully return to when they bring their kids to their alma mater someday. As the popular Oxford hashtag says, we get to live here, which means we have the opportunity and responsibility to engage with local politics.
Katie Dames is the opinion editor from Saint Louis, Mo., majoring in international studies.