How a Local Activist Group Is Using Atlanta's Mayoral Race to Make People Care About Voting

Local politics have activated eligible voters for more than half of the 100 largest cities in the country about to head to the polls.

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Nov 6 2017, 8:00pm

Photo via Facebook

Kavi Vu is one of the hosts of Wake Up Atlanta, a pithy, millennial-focused web series aimed at getting more Asian-Americans out to vote on November 7. She told VICE Impact recently that she and co-host Phi Nguyen were compelled to help members of their community become engaged in the political process after they saw data from the last mayoral election.

"There are 6,000 Asian-Americans registered to vote in Atlanta, and 229 voted in the 2013 election," Vu said. "We just want to increase that number."

Although Vu and Nguyen are using their platform to target Asian-Americans, civic engagement among all communities is always abysmal during local elections—especially during non-presidential election years. In fact, according to researchers at Portland State University, most city leadership roles are decided by 15 percent or less of eligible voters.

On Tuesday, municipal elections are being held across the country, including in more than half of the 100 largest cities in the country, and registered voters will decide some really important positions, including who their next mayor will be.

Beyond being the face of local government, this office in many places has grown increasingly influential. "As the importance of cities has increased," Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World, told the Boston Globe in 2013, "mayors have been compelled … to deal with a lot of issues that traditionally were taken care of at a higher level."

The role of mayor and other city management positions directly impact the quality of a person's life on a daily basis.

This summer, for instance, during the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors, representatives from cities all over adopted a number of resolutions aimed at reducing the country's environmental footprint—despite the Trump administration's decision to exit the Paris climate agreement. And when the president issued an executive order in January stating he'd cut funding to so-called "sanctuary cities," mayors from Chicago, Seattle, and other municipalities promised to defy this order to protect all their citizens, regardless of immigration status.


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In addition to addressing climate change and directing how their cities and towns are powered, mayors also have strong influence over how national issues like gun control, reproductive rights, immigration play out locally. They are also on the front lines when it comes to dealing with natural disasters or violent acts.

At the end of the day, however, the role of mayor and other city management positions directly impact the quality of a person's life on a daily basis, Harvey Newman, a professor emeritus of public policy at Georgia State University, told VICE Impact.

"One of the things you need to know about as a local citizen is how your local government is set up. [In Atlanta] we have a strong mayor/council form of government. It means that we elect a mayor who's going to appoint all the chief officers of the executive branch of the city," he said. "The mayor's responsible for selecting the chief of police, the head of the water and sewer system, and all the other important cabinet level offices of city government."

In other words, of the 10 people currently listed on the City of Atlanta's ballot for mayor, whoever ultimately ends up winning (there's a runoff election scheduled for December if no one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote) will have a say over how the everyday functions of the city, such as public safety, water management, and even street lights, are handled.

Much of the political analysis and commentary surrounding this race, however, has centered a great deal on race. For the first time in decades, Atlanta (which has a reputation for being a "Black Mecca" because of its high proportion of middle-class African Americans), could wind up with a white mayor. For most of this campaign season, Mary Norwood, a white woman, has been leading the public polls. A new survey released last week, however, revealed Keisha Lance Bottoms, a black woman, had pulled ahead, leading Norwood 25.4 percent to 23.4 percent

Nguyen, one of the hosts of Wake Up Atlanta and an attorney, told VICE Impact that Atlanta's mayoral candidates are running in a political climate that's "very anti-immigrant and anti-people of color." As a result, she said, whoever ends up with the job should ensure everyone, including Asian Americans, have a seat at the proverbial table.

"Atlanta as a city tends to be more welcoming to immigrants and people of color than maybe other parts of the state of Georgia," she said. "I think whoever becomes mayor has the ability to further foster the inclusivity of Atlanta, and I think that's really important for people of color in the South right now."

Of the 10 people currently listed on the City of Atlanta's ballot for mayor, whoever ultimately ends up winning will have a say over how the everyday functions of the city, such as public safety, water management, and even street lights, are handled.

That's why, Nguyen added, it's so important for more people to take responsibility and agency of the political process. "There are so many ways to civically engage and to be involved, and I want people to understand better how everybody's a part of this political eco-sphere, and if you're choosing to opt out, things are still happening without you. They're happening to you, and you're just not having a say in it."

Newman agreed, adding, "Local citizenship is vastly underappreciated."

To find out more about who's running in your local municipal elections, check out Ballotpedia , which covers 100 largest cities and 17 of the largest counties in the country.

Whoever you support, it's important to make sure your voice is heard at the polls. VICE Impact has partnered with Democracy Works on their TurboVote initiative to get people registered to vote. Use the widget above to get registered today and learn more about upcoming elections in your city or state.