Why young people should run for office

Editor’s note: Eric-John Szczepaniak is the chair of the Grand Valley State University student senate educational affairs committee and treasurer of Kenowa Hills Public Schools Board of Education. The opinions expressed in this piece are Szczepaniak’s own.

On Dec. 19, 2017, the city of Grand Rapids saw one of its youngest elected officials in its history sworn into office. In November of 2017, at the mere age of 19, Ivory Lehnert was elected to the Grand Rapids Public Library Board. On the same day, Michigan State University students turned out to successfully elect 21-year-old MSU student Aaron Stephens to the East Lansing City Council. Across the country, young people are running to make a difference in their local communities. Now, it’s your turn. 

You may think that you are unqualified for something like this. You may ask if you can even get on the ballot. Well, for nearly every office in the country, you do not need any specific educational background and all it takes is U.S. citizenship. Chances are, if you can vote, then you can run. In Michigan, elections are conducted at the county and municipal level, so you can get all the information needed about running for office by contacting your county clerk. 

In Michigan, both major parties have produced strong candidates for governor who are younger than the average legislator. From the former executive director of Detroit’s health department, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, to one of the nation’s youngest lieutenant governors, Brian Calley, the youth vote is certainly factoring into the conversation across the board. 

“But I’ve seen how political parties operate and I’m not a fan.” Not a problem! Many positions are nonpartisan, so no one will have a (D) or (R) next to their name on election day. These include every public-school board in Michigan and the vast majority of city councils in the state. 

So why run? It is time to be part of the solution, rather than just letting the previous generations write our stories for us. Launched in January of 2017, the group Run for Something, which encourages and empowers young people to run for office, claims that more than 8,000 millennials are gearing up for elections in the coming years. Given the approximately 500,000 elected positions in the U.S., this means young people make up around .02 percent of political candidates. Let’s fix that. 

What is the time commitment? Most elected offices are part time or less with a few meetings per month. All meetings and times are posted online, so you can look ahead to see how many times any given board will be meeting for months in advance. And please, attend a meeting in your community to see if this is something you could do! Those at the table will always tell you that they love public participation and that there are not nearly enough people showing up to their meetings as there should be. 

There are always issues that lawmakers miss, and adding our chair to the table can certainly help close that gap. It will not be easy; no campaign is. But it is a worthy endeavor and an amazing opportunity to share your opinion and continue the dialogue in your own community. In addition, several studies have shown that people who vote at a young age are more likely to become habitual voters throughout their lifetime. So by engaging with others our age, we can help to create a more democratic society with more citizens engaged in the electorate for decades to come.

The world is changing and is in need of a new generation of servant leaders who will mend and advance our society and enhance our collective future. And if running is not for you at this time, encourage a friend to run. Being their first pledged supporter could go a long way. Work on a campaign or set up a voter registration. There are ways that you can create change in your community today. I, for one, am tired of waiting. 

For more information on running for office, visit any of these sites: