Student Representation and Local Government

Yevgeny Shrago

Residents of DC’s posh Georgetown neighborhood have succeeded in keeping most urban disturbances out of their little bubble: the Metro conveniently misses the neighborhood and they have successfully fought to close down any restaurants that made noise. But they still have one enemy ruining their idyll: the students of Georgetown University. As they can’t eliminate the university entirely, the residents have come up with a new plan over the last 20 years.   The residents keep out the poor. It works there because the people who want to fight it aren’t represented and it could work here for the same reasons.

The latest salvo in this battle came with the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Council’s recommendations for Georgetown’s new ten year plan. According to the Council, Georgetown should cut enrollment and strictly limit the number of students living off campus, bar student commuters from parking in the surrounding neighborhoods and should not be allowed to acquire more land in the Georgetown area without approval from the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Once the undergraduates are safely contained within the university, the owners in the surrounding neighborhoods will be able to reap all the positive externalities of having a prestigious university nearby, while forcing the university to internalize the negative ones, usually to the detriment of the students.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Georgetown enrolls 7,000 undergraduate students and another 8,000 graduates. Although not all these students live in the area, a large percentage do. According to the census, the 20007 zip code that encompasses Georgetown has roughly 29,000 permanent residents. If only half the university’s students live in the area, they would constitute a third of the people living in Georgetown. Mobilizing those students to vote and run for office in local elections would completely change the dynamic. Suddenly, instead of scoring easy points by attacking students, local leaders would have to take their interests into account.

This isn’t a pipe dream. The last time DC City Council passed restrictive parking regulations, Georgetown students turned out and elected two ANC commissioners. Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin, where students constitute about 20% of the population, regularly elects a student representative to city council.

There are two major obstacles to overcome before students can have a voice. First, many localities specifically gerrymander their electoral districts to split the student vote. Ann Arbor divides their ward map like a pizza, with the University and its students at the center. Students are not the majority in any single ward, though they constitute a third of the city’s population. Second, student turnout in these elections is low. Part of this arises from students’ orientation toward national issues, but another factor is based in attempts by poll watchers and neighborhood groups to confuse or even intimidate students about their voting rights to ensure that they don’t provide a challenge to the status quo.

The answer is organization. Wherever students constitute a significant portion of a locality’s population, those omnipresent get-out-the-voters shouldn’t just be pushing for turnout in elections with national implications. When a student complains about an inability to get a street parking permit or the level of noise restriction, there should be a student group saying “stop complaining and get all your friends to vote.” Changing the student orientation toward local government could change local government’s orientation toward students.

Edit: It was pointed out over in the comments of DCist that such an organization already exists in DC: DC Students Speak. I applaud their work and encourage them to think bigger than just ANC seats. 15% of DC’s population is students, which could mean a huge influence on citywide elections. Student organizers in other towns should take a look at their model and see if it will work for them.

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