The following is a staff member’s op/ed piece and does not reflect the views of The Quadrangle, its Editorial Board, the College or the student body.
Elections have consequences.
It’s an oft-uttered phrase, but it’s a lesson that many critics of Donald Trump must take to heart if they believe that his administration is bringing the nation in a negative direction, and this lesson applies to elections that lack the same kind of star-power and media attention as the presidential election cycle.
In the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, media speculation swirled around prominent members of the Democratic Party that may be positioning themselves to challenge Trump in 2020. After his unprecedented testimony against his former Senate colleague and current Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is the subject of 2020-related media buzz. The same rumors were floated about New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand – who has occupied Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat since 2009 – after her equally unprecedented opposition to Trump’s cabinet nominees and the same could be said for freshman California Senator Kamala Harris – who, in November 2016, became the second African-American woman and first Indian-American to be elected to the U.S. Congress’ upper chamber.
While all this makes for interesting hypothetical punditry, it ultimately distracts from the elections that are, quite literally, just around the corner in 2017, and these are the elections that so desperately suffer from absurdly low-turnout and obscenely high-levels of voter disengagement. And, while these elections, again, lack the same 24/7 wall-to-wall coverage of their national counterparts, they are equally as important in charting a new path for American political governance.
This year, 54 of the 100 largest American cities will hold municipal and local elections, and voters in seven of the ten most-populous American cities will have the opportunity to have their voices heard at the ballot box according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit and nonpartisan election encyclopedia. Among these cities are Los Angeles, Boston, San Antonio, and the most-populated city in America: New York City–the very place where you and I are currently situated.
While these elections typically go on without much fanfare, the stakes have been raised in the era of Trump, especially if your aim is to resist the 45th President throughout his Presidency. For example, later this year in New York City, voters will decide on who will represent them at Gracie Mansion and at City Hall and whomever they elect will ultimately preside over a gargantuan $82.2 billion budget – the largest municipal budget in the country and a figure nine times as large as the next largest: Los Angeles’ $8.7 billion 2016-17 budget.
More pressingly, however, is that the fate of New York City’s half-million undocumented immigrants may also be on the ballot this election.
In 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intention to establish a municipal identification card. After deliberation by the New York City Council, the proposal became a reality under the guise of “IDNYC.” While most residents failed to see the utility in such an ID, it was a game-changer for undocumented New Yorkers.
Now having a valid form of government-issued identification in reach, undocumented immigrants – many of whom took solace in former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) executive program – could now set up a bank account and have access to services that required photo identification and from which they were previously excluded from obtaining.
But, for all of IDNYC’s benefits, there also came a catch. In order to curtail concerns from the NYPD that a municipal identification card could be used to commit fraud, deBlasio and the City Council agreed to keep records of all IDNYC applicants – meaning that the City of New York presently has the personal information and addresses of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants currently residing within the five boroughs.
This means that, if Trump kept his promise to create a mass deportation force, the IDNYC database would be a treasure trove of information for ICE officials.
Bronx City Councilmember Ritchie Torres told New York Magazine in December 2016 that “IDNYC and DACA could conceivably have the same fate: Two programs intended to protect undocumented immigrants could have the ultimate effect of exposing them. It’s a cruel irony.”
Fortunately, the Mayor and the City Council have said that they will challenge any attempts by federal authorities to gain access to the IDNYC database and, if necessary, employ a provision in the IDNYC law that allows for the destruction of all IDNYC records; however, all of them are up for re-election and, as Trump’s candidacy has shown, nothing is ever certain in politics.
The case of New York City is just one of many reasons as to why you should take notice of the political developments in your home states and towns. Others include New Jersey and Virginia, which will elect new governors as respective incumbents Chris Christie and Terry McAuliffe are term-limited. Both will have serious national implications as Democrats now have the opportunity to take full control of the New Jersey state government and can make significant headway in Virginia’s racial gerrymandering Supreme Court case with blue streak victories in November.
Not to mention, your vote and political participation might actually carry more weight in these off-year elections. This all brings us back to the topic of voter turnout.
In 2016, an estimated 55.3 percent of all eligible voting-age Americans took to the voting booth according to the U.S. Election Project. This number, although comparatively low for Western liberal democracies, is in line with the turnout rates in national elections since 2004 (55.7 percent in 2004, 57.1 percent in 2008, 54.9 percent in 2012, respectively).
Yet, in off-year elections like 2017, voter turnout plummets and fast. In 2013, New Yorkers elected a new Mayor, five Borough Presidents, and 51 members of the City Council to respective four-year terms. According to data from the City Board of Elections, citywide turnout that year was an abysmal 24 percent, a number that was described by the New York Times as “the lowest since at least the mid-20th century.”
In City Council races, turnout was even worse. In the general election race for City Council District 11, which encompasses the entirety of the Manhattan College as well as the surrounding neighborhood of Riverdale, only 14,626 voters showed up out of 81,545 registered voters, a mere 17.9 percent turnout. And these low-turnout elections are endemic to state and local politics. According to Governing magazine and researchers from the University of Wisconsin, the decline is systemic and has the potential to get even worse.
Although the state of affairs, as it relates political participation, is bleak, it also presents an opportunity. According to the Pew Research Center, 2016 marked the first time that Millennials represented as large as a voting bloc (69.2 million eligible voters) as Baby Boomers (69.7 million eligible voters), meaning that young people increasingly have the chance to influence public policy and voter representation in elections that have historically been dominated by segments of the population that are older, more economically well-off and whiter than the average American voter. But that’s only if we as a voting bloc exercise our right to vote.
While the Framers burdened us with the Electoral College, they also gave us federalism- the freedom to use state and local governments as a shield from the agenda coming from Washington, D.C. You don’t have to wait until 2018 or 2020 to resist Trump. In fact, you can make your voice heard right now in elections where your voice may have the most relative power.
Elections have consequences. Make those consequences for the better.