Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
A mentor of mine once told me decisions are always made by those who show up. The power of self-governance lies in the "I voted" stickers adorning the shirts of citizens who are determined to have their voices heard. We must maintain an active voting base that keeps its representatives accountable. Our government, even at the municipal level, should represent who we are. It should represent our hopes, our needs, our grievances and our aspirations as a community. Yet, to do this well, everyone needs a chance to show up. Everyone needs a chance to vote.
Nationwide, certain citizens have a hard time getting to the polls on Election Day. Because of this, all states and many cities employ some form of absentee voting. This has been crucial to bolstering voter turnout. In 2012, about 23.3 million voters cast some form of absentee ballot. In 2016, around 41 million Americans voted either by absentee or through early voting. Since 2006, alternative voting practices have become more popular among all demographics. The military uses absentee ballots, as do the elderly and those who are unable to leave jobs or school to go to the polls.
Maryland is a no-excuse absentee ballot state, meaning that a voter may request a ballot without having to provide a specific reason. Maryland's State Board of Elections website clearly states, "You don't need a reason to vote by absentee ballot."
Hyattsville, a close neighbor to College Park, has a no-excuse absentee ballot system. Its website states, "any registered voter may vote by mail." In Annapolis, "A registered voter may vote by absentee ballot."
College Park has an absentee ballot system. However, an application for an absentee ballot will only be accepted under five scenarios. For a voter to receive an application, he or she must be absent from the city, be ill or have a disability, be confined to an institution, have a death or serious illness in the immediate family or be a full-time student outside of the city. But there's a glaring hole in this policy. For lots of people — people with employment, school or child-care constraints — voting in College Park can be difficult.
Leaving a job, class or being late to pick up children from daycare may result in firing, poor grades or late fees from childcare centers. Many citizens of College Park cannot make it to the polls without negative consequences.
Jordan Malter from CNN Money observed this problem, writing, "Elections are held on a work day, when time often equals money — especially if you get paid by the hour. And having a car or paying extra for public transportation to get to the polls can just add to that expense."
This highlights the importance of expanding College Park's absentee rules. No-excuse absentee voting may be the ideal solution, but it is imperative that, at the very least, College Park expand their five reasons to six. Those who find themselves unable to get to the polls on Election Day through work, school or a combination of both should be able to request an absentee ballot.
College Park is a wonderful city full of great neighbors, leaders and citizens. Yet, municipal election turnout is low. In 2015, only 12.9 percent of registered voters made it to the polls. In 2013 that number was 9.1 percent. To some extent, this is natural for an odd-year election. Yet, if we can help more voters have their voices heard, it would benefit us all.
My mentor told me that decisions are always made by those who show up. I'd like to amend that. Decisions are made by those who can show up. If we empower each other by establishing new and diverse voting methods, then we can continue to create a stronger sense of self-governance and accountability. We will all be able to wear the "I voted" sticker together.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this column claimed all states and cities have some form of absentee voting. While all states employ an absentee voting system, not all cities do so. This column has been updated.
Alex Tobin is a junior government and politics major running for College Park City Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.