OPINION: Why you should care about your alderman

As aldermanic candidates campaign for the elections on Feb. 28, there is increased emphasis throughout Chicago on local civic engagement. With the elections around the corner, it is essential that college students engage with their alderman to maintain recognition for their concerns. Whereas it is throughout their four-year term that each alderman serves on city council, which amends local laws that approve or deny the mayor’s proposed annual budget for the city. 

Demographics on voter turnout rates over time indicate a significant age-based civic engagement gap in both local and national politics. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement only 27% of eligible young voters voted in the 2022 midterm elections. While various factors influence this engagement gap, it is evident that a significant portion of eligible student voters fail to participate in local and national elections. Thus, posing the question, do college students care about their alderman? 

Chicago’s diverse student population is a contributing factor for the student engagement gap in the aldermanic elections, whereas there is a significant portion of out of state or commuter students from the suburbs for the academic year. This issue often influences students’ engagement with their alderman as they may not be as inclined to participate in the City’s local political climate. Students may feel they lack influence or hold no stake outside of their hometowns and opt out of participating in local politics. 

“I think that a lot of people have their opinions on their respective aldermen, but in general, I feel that they are not always viewed positively. Being from outside the city and its general area, it has definitely shaped the way that I see Chicago politics,” said DePaul senior and economics major, Connor Schmidt.

Even so, all college students in Chicago are directly — and indirectly —  impacted by their alderman’s decisions as they ensure that their community is taken care of on a daily basis. Whether it be repaving sidewalks, cleaning garbage, addressing noise complaints or facilitating permits, every Chicago resident’s daily life is influenced by their alderman.

Additionally, aldermen ensure that each citizen is proportionally represented on a local scale. Chicago is divided into 50 wards (a division of the city) and each alderman is elected by their constituency into a ward that represents a specific community of residents. 

“Local politics can be much closer to the people than national politics,” said DePaul political science professor Eric Tillman. “Chicago’s 50 ward offices are responsible for implementing a wide range of services, and the City government has major responsibilities for policies like education, policing, and housing. So, voting, volunteering or interning in local government is a great way to learn more about politics and to make a difference.” 

Apart from the city budget, aldermen also concern themselves with legislation as it pertains to their constituent’s needs. Aldermen represent their constituent’s needs by curating policies and programs to address constituent’s concerns. 

“As local city officials we have the power to increase rent, to increase your tuition (not directly), we are able to control the roads, and public transit that you use to get to school,” said Nathan Bean,  undergraduate student, and Aldermanic Candidate for the 44th Ward. “We control that in your local elections, and you need to be voting on those people.” 

However, the lack of student civic participation in local elections impacts the democratic recognition of young constituent’s concerns. This disregard for student’s sentiments is often reflected in elected officials’ campaigns, whereas most elected officials are seeking to optimize their votes. Thus, candidates often pay minimal regard for college students because they typically do not cast their vote. 

“We have a lot of elected officials who don’t care about the college voices and so the college youth’s voices are not heard,” Bean said. 

When students fail to voice their concerns through civic engagement, it hinders their ability to make a lasting impact on their communities politically. College students must immerse themselves in local political culture such as the engagement with their aldermen to ensure their concerns are addressed. Engaging with city officials is crucial to achieving proportionate representation of students and holding elected officials accountable.