The Madison and larger Dane County area has long had a unique political relationship with the student body of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with students making up roughly 17 and 8% of the Madison and Dane County population, respectively — meaning that students make up a considerate voting block in local elections
As a result of this political power held by UW-Madison students, districts that are predominantly populated by attendees of the university typically elect a fellow student to represent their interests within local government
These student-elected officials serve as crucial components to the ways in which UW-Madison interacts with surrounding communities, with these officials attempting to navigate the differences between students and outside community members.
One such student official is 21-year-old UW-Madison student Elana Haasl, who currently serves as the District 5 Dane County Board supervisor, representing the campus and eagle heights. Supervisor Haasl spoke with the Daily Cardinal to discuss her role as a student serving in public office.
What caused you to get involved in local government as a student?
Before I came to college, I truthfully knew very little about what county government was and it wasn't until I started to work on a city council campaign for a friend that someone suggested I look into the county supervisor position. I began to talk to some of the county supervisors and attended some of the meetings and I initially wasn't especially interested in the position until one of the supervisors reached out to me and encouraged me to run. Once I learned that no other student was going to run for the seat, I felt a responsibility to campaign due to the unique nature of my district that enables a student to serve in public office and more directly represent the interests of students.
Honestly, the whole thing felt like something you would do when you’re older, but I felt that if I could bring more awareness to the county board and I can represent student interests then I want to run, but I never imagined myself here at this age.
How does your status as a student and a young person impact your activity in public office?
I think my colleagues take me pretty seriously and see me as an equal on the board. Some of the time, I struggle with imposter syndrome because my colleagues are all very experienced and have a lot of policy experience or have just been on the board for a long time, which can sometimes make me feel underqualified for my position. So I have to constantly remind myself that I am still learning things. You can never really learn everything about government because there are so many different components and moving parts, so it’s all about specializing in particular issues and relying on information from colleagues to create meaningful legislation that better serves the interests of Dane County residents.
Generally, I feel that my relationship with my colleagues is pretty positive and I think they respect me as a peer, but there are definitely some tense moments where me and my colleagues strongly disagree with one another, which can make things difficult. Overall, I feel like we deal with conflict well and I think I’ve learned to vehemently disagree with someone’s perspective on an issue without personally resenting the people I disagree with. I don't hate any of my colleagues, and I think we do a good job at keeping things civil.
During this past year, there was an especially low turnout among students for the election of the District 8 aldermanic chair. What do you think are the main causes for the low rate of student participation in local elections?
I think local voting organizations could do a better job of mobilizing student voters to participate in local elections instead of just state and federal ones. Obviously, in the past year, the COVID pandemic has probably played a role in limiting the number of students voting in local elections, but I think a lot of the time local elections just don't receive the same amount of coverage and political messaging that state and federal ones do, which causes students not to come out because they just weren't aware that an election was taking place.
There should be more emphasis placed on local elections. You can’t walk up to President Biden or Governor Evers and personally ask them to implement certain policies, but you can do that with local officials. I think if people understood that local government has the power to really help their communities, more people both on and off campus would feel that their vote has more power than they think it does. I think we need more emphasis on local elections, more reminders and more information so that more people will vote in these elections.
To what extent do you feel that student representatives such as yourself are actually able to influence local policy?
Broadly, I do think student representatives do have an impact, but I think that it depends on the number of people who are paying attention to the issues that are important to students. I think a big problem with advocating for policies that students support is that most students aren't familiar with the Common Council or the Dane County Board of Supervisors, which can limit our ability to advocate for legislation. I think student representatives do make an impact in local government, for example, the former District 8 Alder Max Prestigacomo helped to pass some important legislation regarding police reform and the decriminalization of marijuana in Madison, which has been super important.
That being said, if the issue isn't as well known, it can be hard to mobilize people in order to make change. The actions of locally elected student officials do matter. I guess it just depends on how interested the general public is in an issue.
What aspect of being a student representative motivates you to dedicate your time and attention to fulfilling the responsibilities of local office?
It can be hard and sometimes I do get a little disillusioned with the idea that I can make change from the inside. But I have been reflecting lately and I’ve realized that if I’m not holding this seat, someone else will and they could have opinions that are harmful to the general interests of those on campus, which doesn't sit right with me. Even though local government can sometimes be slow and boring, if you don't have someone in office who actually listens to the input of community members, there can be serious consequences, so it is important to be actively engaged in local politics.
What response would you give to the criticism that student politicians can be too rhetorically aggressive or radical in their pursuit of fulfilling policy goals?
I think a lot of the time when we approach social justice issues, we have an expectation that we have to be nice about it even though people’s lives are literally on the line. Frankly, I think it’s okay to not be nice about it. If nothing is going to be done about it when you’re saying things nicely, then you need to bring attention to the issue. If that’s being straightforward or rude then that’s what has to happen. There are bigger issues, like marginalized groups are being persecuted simply for existing [and] people lacking proper housing aren't always being taken seriously, which means that sometimes student activists have to be more direct with their rhetoric.
What advice would you give to any students potentially interested in running for elected office?
Do your research, reach out to people already holding that position and make an informed decision on if you think you can realistically commit to the job. Holding public office comes with a lot of emotional stress and requires a lot of time and effort. That being said, you should do it! Even though things can move a little slowly, we need more young people in government because the issues being discussed by officials impact everyone. We need to become more involved so that we can deal with these issues and protect our futures.