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On Civic Engagement: Why Your Vote Matters, and Why Local Elections Deserve Your Participation

It's almost Election Day! Yes, yes, I know it's only 2017—but there's still elections happening, right in your backyard!

You may have seen the yard signs cropping up, might have gotten a number of unsolicited canvassers knocking on your door, extolling the virtues of such-and-such for city council. Maybe you've received a number of brochures, postcards, and other mailers taped to your door or shoved into your mailbox, listing an obscene amount of seemingly inane credentials for each candidate. Perhaps your street corners are flooded with sandwich board-wearing volunteers holding signs with cheesy slogans, imploring you to honk if you support expanding the free school lunch programs or adding new traffic lights at a notorious intersection. In any case, bothersome as it may be to process all the information coming your way, local elections play a vital role in determining leadership at every level of government. If you're able, it's in your best interest to vote.

Non-presidential elections are just as important as national elections. America prides itself on being a democratic republic, and voting is a civic responsibility and constitutional right that allows us to protect public interests. Though notoriously and unequivocally imperfect (for so very many reasons), it's important to remain optimistic: the ability to vote should enable us to enact legislation that betters the common good and elect representatives who embody and serve their constituencies.

You may notice that there are city council elections, school board elections, mayoral elections, gubernatorial elections, mid-term elections, and more. Tomorrow's elections enable us to effect change at the local level of government, and despite the many shortcomings of the United States's system, participation in government is a form of activism that shows that we, the citizens, care about our own communities and won't just settle for anything. It shows our interest—in numbers, quantitative data—in building governing bodies that represent and include us, all of our diverse identities and needs. It shows our interest in creating a better society through laws that defend our human rights and extend rights to the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed. It lends even more credence to the protests, the outrage, the whispers of unrest, the thinkpieces, the calls to action, the phone calls, the letters, the faxes, the emails, the debates, the round tables, all the talk about change, all that qualitative data that creates the political atmosphere, by giving the elected leaders firm numbers that indicate support for causes.

If you're new to voting, you might feel at a complete loss. What do I want out of this election? What are the issues on the ballot? Who do I want to vote for? Why? How do I even vote? Where? When? Am I registered to vote? How do I do that? What's a primary? Should I care?

First, I urge you to check out these voting resources:, Vote411,,, Your Voice Your Vote, Rock the Vote, the NAACP, the SPLC, the Advancement Project,, and the APIA all contain information on how to register to vote, how to overcome obstacles to voting, when important deadlines are, what ward and district you live in, who your representatives are, where your local polling place is, what you need to bring to be able to vote, what issues are on your ballot, what candidates are up for election, what positions they're running for, and more! For very region-specific elections, check out's handy states and territories guide. Select your state or territory from the drop-down menu, and click the link next to "Official Name" to get to your state's official government homepage.

Next, you should focus on what's on that ballot: the candidates and the issues. Now, it's important to note that if you're not already registered to vote, it's too late for tomorrow's election, but you can start preparing for next year's right now! If you really want to be an informed voter, you've got a lot of thinking and a lot of legwork to do before you head out to the polls. In the Roman Catholic Church, before you go to confession, you're asked to perform an examination of conscience to ensure the most complete and fulfilling reconciliation of transgressions and sins. Preparing to vote requires a similar sort of appraisal to make sure your voice is heard on everything that concerns you and those you care about. A good mental self-examination helps you not only make choices, but also recognize and develop the motivations for those decisions. Some reflection can help you prioritize, to determine what causes you feel need attention. The NAACP has some helpful resources on civic engagement, which is basically your motivation for getting to a polling center.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself: What does your community need? Do a self-assessment: What issues matter to you? What changes do you want to see in your town or city? What should stay the same?

Research the candidates. Get to know candidates either in person or through their reputations. Ask around and get an idea of what's important to your community. Ask around and see what's important to the candidates. Read their platforms; check out their websites and social media; read the handouts and flyers; dig into their political background. Many factors affect how someone votes, including family background, career, financial status, and so on. If the candidate doesn't advertise their stance on an issue, you can pull together a fair guess from this profile you've put together. Compare and contrast. Assess your values and see what matches up.

Research the issues. What are the questions on the ballot, and what do they mean for you and your loved ones? Your home? Your school? Your workplace? Your rights? Your benefits? Your community? How do they affect those around you? Will certain laws make it easier or harder for the lives, goals, and dreams of your neighbor? Think critically about the ramifications of the ballot proposals. Consider the motivations behind the drafting and wording of these laws.

You now have some new tools to aid you in your quest to vote with your conscience. Armed with all of this introspection and information, I now deem you ready to vote! As you make your way to the polls tomorrow, however, I ask you to keep some things in mind.

It's easy to get wrapped up in single issues and to want only what will benefit you and you alone. There's a highly individualistic tendency to want to get what's yours and pull the ladder up behind you so no one else can get ahead. I understand this, but I'm begging you to fight against the selfishness. Your needs are valid and important, but you live and interact with many other human beings with their own rights, needs, and wants, and sometimes, your own desires may encroach on the rights and safety of others, especially poor, vulnerable, elderly, disabled, marginalized, and oppressed folks. Your actions (and inaction) affect the lives of others. This may seem obvious, but it's critical to advocate for the well-being of your community. It's where you live, work, learn, and play. You raise families there; you have friends there. No man is an island. If you have the power to change things for the better for a large number of people, why not do it?

Have a wonderful Election Day, everyone! Be kind, be compassionate, and vote responsibly.

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