Opinion guest column

Please vote Nov. 7

An alum on the importance of local elections

There is an election in a few weeks. When I was a student at MIT, almost no one voted in municipal elections; they seemed so inconsequential. After I left MIT, I was surprised to find that participating in municipal elections has a direct impact on my life and a much greater impact than national elections.


In a digital democracy, in a very literal sense, only those who vote or donate have a voice. Elected representatives have tremendous amounts of data about you, including whether you’re registered to vote and which elections you have participated in. Recently, I bumped into one of my representatives at a public event. I asked to speak for a few minutes; he initially excused himself, saying he didn’t have time. I saw him check an app on his cell phone. When he came back, he “remembered” where I lived and a fair bit of background about me. Since his app showed I was civically engaged, he found time to talk at length about an issue affecting me. Virtually all candidates define their platforms by listening to their constituents based on voting records. In a digital democracy, the link between voting and influence is very direct; if you don’t vote, politicians won’t listen to you. Much like a credit record, building up that record early helps you in future years.

In addition, in contrast to national politics, you and your friends can sway election outcomes. It only takes about 1700 votes to win a city council seat — less than a fifth of the MIT student body.

What are the major issues this election? The biggest issue is zoning and housing costs. Cambridge housing prices doubled in the past half-decade. As you may have noticed, most of Cambridge is three stories high and is no longer quite able to house everyone. That trend, combined with short-term rentals, lead to a lot of real estate speculation (much foreign). A basic 3-bedroom family home costs approximately $1 million. To stay in Cambridge, as many students do after graduation, you will need two corporate jobs (for example optimizing ad clicks or designing financial instruments). Would you like to be an entrepreneur? A scholar? An artist? You’ll need to move somewhere else.

There is natural friction between the people who invest in land to extract rent and resell (major universities, foreign investors, as well as older Cambridge residents) and the people who pay them (students, recent graduates, and younger families, priced out of the market). Most Cambridge politicians take a “compromise” position with affordable housing tools such as linkage fees and inclusive housing requirements. These tools block off a portion of the housing stock for low-income individuals. While a good idea, when combined with restrictive zoning and aggressive commercial development, these reduce supply for the middle class, and in a tight market, dramatically drive up prices for everyone else, while giving voters the impression that politicians support affordable housing. The major winners are existing landowners, as well as the few developers with enough political sway to win exemptions to zoning to build high-density units.

Campaign finance reform is the second major issue this election cycle. Cambridge is one of the least corrupt cities in the US but the price of entry has risen rapidly, which threatens to jeopardize that. A basic city council campaign breaks $30,000. That’s a level of spending where candidates move funding from richer friends and family to special interests.

Voting is easy. Register online by October 18th. Look over candidate platforms, profiles, and spending (less spending is better). Find candidates with thoughtful, concrete, and specific plans which can be executed in the two-year term. A transparent plan you disagree with is better than no plan. Avoid candidates who merely express empathy or give empty phrases such as, “Develop a plan for affordable housing and future development.” In Cambridge politics, asking for studies (with no plan for action) is usually a dodge.

So come November, please hit the polls! Voting now can make a big impact on your life in the future. Happy voting!

Piotr Mitros  SB ’04, PhD ’07