College students deserve a voice in local government
In a city as disenfranchised as DC, it seems especially important to make sure that all residents have the opportunity to cast a vote. But one group is systematically denied a voice in local decision-making: college students.
It's true that students at schools like Georgetown, Howard, and Catholic are, in a sense, not permanent residents, and many of them may be unfamiliar with or uninterested in local elections. Most of them will probably move out of the neighborhood after four years or so.
For example, in the elections last month, two American University freshmen ran write-in campaigns for ANC seats. ANC 3D chair Tom Smith filed complaints against both of them with the Board of Elections and Ethics, although one, Deon Jones, managed to get elected to the long-vacant 3D07 seat.
The other, Tyler Sadonis, who was running for Smith's own seat in 3D02, lost, although according to Smith himself nearly 60 AU students showed up to vote in that precinct. This was an unusually high turnout, but many students were prevented from voting by poll watchers specifically targeting students.
Smith has since called (huge PDF) for the repeal of voting reforms passed by the DC Council last year, including same-day registration and early voting, citing the fact that some AU students attempted to register without the proper identification.
Even if all 60 AU students who tried to vote in 3D02 had been allowed to, Smith still would have been easily reelected with 228 votes. But those students should have been welcomed and encouraged to participate in their local election, rather than intimidated and targeted for challenges.
Nor is this an isolated incident: AU student Sami Green says she's tried to get on the ballot in 3D07 eight times in the past two years. Sometimes she failed to get enough signatures, but other times her petitions were rejected on various technical grounds.
Meanwhile, down in Burleith, neighbors are vociferously opposing Georgetown University's 10-year development plan, which would expand graduate student enrollment from 6,275 to 8,750 while adding only 120 beds on campus. According to Burleith residents, the student presence in their neighborhood is already intolerable, between late-night parties and "walk-by noise." You have to sympathize with them; apparently they were unaware they were moving in next to a 200-year-old university.
The Burleith and Georgetown residents demand that the university build more on-campus housing to keep students away from them. But what if students want to live off-campus? Unfortunately for them, there's no practical reason Councilmember Jack Evans should even consider what students want, because it's mostly the residents who get to vote. Indeed, Evans told the Burleith Citizens Association that he supports them and opposes the campus plan. Why should he say otherwise when the political incentives are so clear?
Up in College Park, the University of Maryland's neighbors have shown a similar hostility towards the idea of students living outside the confines of campus. Elected officials are currently trying to prevent the construction of a residential project on the Maryland Book Exchange site, across the street from the main entrance to UMD. They may or may not be right that the project would adversely affect locals, but there's little question it would be good for the 830 students who'd be able to live there. Unfortunately they aren't really a party to the debate.
Some may argue that college students are free to register to vote at their college address or even run for local office if they meet residency requirements. (Others incorrectly warn of legal consequences for students who try to register at their college address.) But hostility and obstructionism on the part of local residents can be discouraging, and the transient nature of student life means many students are still getting to know their adopted neighborhood when their four years are up.
Unfortunately there are few easy options for increasing student representation in local decision-making. Foremost among them is gerrymandering, which can create a seat on a local body that's effectively reserved for students. Gerrymandering is what created SMD 3D07, the seat won by Deon Jones. Jones will join Georgetown student Jake Sticka as the only two college students serving on ANCs. That's less than 1% of the 276 commissioners citywide, in a city where college students represent nearly 15% of the population.
An intercollegiate campaign called DC Students Speak was launched last year partly to correct this imbalance. They've identified 11 SMDs with majority student populations that are represented by non-student commissioners. The campaign hopes to register and mobilize enough students to correct this imbalance somewhat.
For their part, college neighbors should be more welcoming of students, especially those interested in getting involved in their communities. It benefits everyone if DC-area college students graduate with an attachment to their adopted home, since they may choose to stick around and contribute to the tax base. And it's the right thing to do. Everyone deserves a voice, and only by making everyone's voice heard can we build a city that works for everyone.
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