The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Craig Benjamin.
How to ensure your elected representatives are representing you
JACKSON HOLE, WY – I’ll never forget the sense of adventure I felt the first time I drove into Jackson Hole. It was a crisp fall day in October 2001, and I was heading north on Highway 89, my two-door Toyota RAV-4 packed to the gills with all of my earthly possessions. I vividly remember seeing Teewinot and the Grand as they peeked into view as I crossed into the Town of Jackson. I recall thinking to myself: I wonder how long it will take until this place feels like home. How long will it take until I am a local?
After a few years, I started to feel like I was getting close to being a local. I knew pretty much everyone in the tram line on a pow day. I could read the weather and avy conditions and determine the “best” place to ski in the Village sidecountry on any given day. I could get a bro-deal at nearly every bar and ski shop in town. I felt part of a close-knit community of people passionate about slaying deep pow in big mountains.
Yet I still didn’t feel like a real local, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Then, on Tuesday, November 2, 2004, when I voted for the first time in Teton County, I figured it out.
After I voted for my preferred candidates for president, congress, and the state legislature, I realized that not only did I actually personally know some of the candidates running for local elected office, I cared deeply about all of their respective visions for the future of my community. I had finally developed a deep enough connection with this place that I chose to participate in our representative democracy and play a role in shaping our shared future. I had a stake in this community.
I had moved beyond a focus on how this place was awesome for me and started caring about how we could work together to make this place better for all of us. Jackson Hole had truly become my home. I had finally become a local.
On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I couldn’t help but remember that moment. I had joined two friends in riding the tram up to go ski corn on Cody peak. With the lower elevations melted out and approaches becoming more challenging by the day, a flock of folks took advantage of the free tram ride for those with local drivers licenses (thank you Jackson Hole Mountain Resort!) to access deep snow on our American public lands. The mood was festive, with beer flowing, many donning their best red, white and blue attire, and a select few donning nothing at all.
As I sat on top of Powder 8s, soaking in the sun and sipping on a Rainier, I began to wonder, how many of these people are really locals? Sure, they might have a Wyoming driver’s license, they might have lived here for more than a season, they might have sweet bro-deal hookups all over the valley. But are they invested in the long-term future of our community? Are they fulfilling their American responsibility to participate in our representative democracy by voting? Or are they just another short-timer still registered to vote (or not) in Vermont, Alabama, Washington, or wherever they’re “from”?
Given the young age of the crowd on Powder 8s that day, it’s a good bet that many of these people aren’t registered to vote here. Unfortunately, while voter turnout is around 100 percent for registered voters, many of our residents (especially people under 35) are not yet registered and voting.
In recent elections—2010 through 2014—the youth “vote share” in Teton County (meaning what percentage of total votes come from people under 35) has been much lower than the rest of Wyoming, about half the statewide average. In the 2012 general election, a presidential year, less than 20 percent of all votes in Teton County came from people under 35. But in the 2014 general election, a non-presidential year that still involved important local races, of registered voters for whom we know their age, less than 4 percent of all the votes in Teton County came from people under 35. Seriously, less than 4 percent.
When a group doesn’t vote, elected decision-makers often don’t consider their interests. How can your elected leaders represent you if you don’t participate and make your voice heard by voting? They can’t.
When you consider that our local and state elected representatives literally shape the future of our community, that’s a problem. They decide how we address the housing emergency that’s destroying our middle class and threatening the fabric of our community, the transportation challenges tearing into our quality of life, the nearly 400 animals struck and killed on our roads every year, the big money special interests pushing their extreme agenda to privatize our American public lands, and the many other big challenges facing our community.
If we don’t vote, we have no voice in how (or if) our elected representatives address these challenges. Quite simply, voting is the easiest way to make our voices heard and help determine the future of our community. It’s a core part of being a local.
This is why the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance is proudly launching our #I’mALocal New Voter Project this election season. We are striving to get hundreds of new locals on the voter rolls. And to get this done we’re going to do what we do best, have fun! So please consider joining us at our New Voter Project kickoff party at Phil Baux park from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 22. We’ll have food, drinks, music, and information about how you can register to vote.
This is our home. Let’s get involved in shaping our shared future and vote like locals. PJH