Earlier this month, residents of Chapel Hill elected a mayor, four town council members, and four school board members. All three elections were close and contested. An incumbent mayor lost in Chapel Hill for the first time in five decades and a single percentage point decided many of the other races. In addition, voters approved bonds for over $40 million to be spent on parks, solid waste, streets, sidewalks, and storm water infrastructure. (1)
These local officials and policy decisions will have an impact on the entire Chapel Hill community, including students at UNC.
Participation in US presidential elections tends to hover around 50% voter turnout. In midterm years those numbers are smaller. In off years, where only local elections are on the ballot, the numbers are dismal. (2) The estimated voter turnout for our recent election was 16%. This means only one in six eligible voters in Chapel Hill went to the polls this year. (3)
Considering how close the recent elections were, these numbers are concerning and indicate that a fairly small minority of voters are making decisions for the vast majority of residents.
While efforts to increase voter participation need to continue, and conversations that question who is and who is not eligible to vote in the first place need to be considered; it’s also important to note that there are lots of other ways to engage with and influence our community throughout the year.
Student voices are an important part of Chapel Hill’s social and environmental wellness. Students have a lot to offer the community, and in turn, the students have a lot they could learn from our town.
Below are a few ways you can become more civically engaged in our town outside of Election Day.
Chapel Hill Town Council Meetings are held at Chapel Hill Town Hall on Monday nights at 7 pm. These meetings are open to the public and include time for residents to learn about town governance and policy as well as speak and contribute to the conversation. If you are curious about what issues are at play in Chapel Hill, this is a great place to start. (4)
Chapel Hill has around 20 resident advisory groups that help shape town policy on issues ranging from the environment to art, parking to human rights, and cemeteries to libraries. Resident advisory groups typically meet once a month and allow individuals to get hands-on experience with issues they care deeply about. Check the town website regularly for vacancies and consider applying. (5)
Perhaps the most important way to be civically engaged and contribute to the town environmental and social wellness is to explore, be present, and give back. Challenge yourself to check out all that Chapel Hill has to offer and figure out ways you can contribute to the collective community. Buses are always free and there are amazing resources around town that depict the history, culture, and vibrancy of this community.
For a deeper look and appreciation of the Northside and Pine Knolls, two of Chapel Hill’s most historic and important neighborhoods, go to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History. For a broader view of the many things Chapel Hill has to offer, check out the Visitors Center on Franklin Street. (6) (7)
Will McInerney is a Program Assistant at Student Wellness with the UNC Men’s Project. Will’s work focuses on engaging men in gender equity and violence prevention efforts at UNC Chapel Hill. Will is also a freelance writer and radio producer, a regular contributor to the Chapel Hill News, News and Observer, and North Carolina Public Radio, and has been featured on NPR, American Public Media, and Al Jazeera English.