In November 2015, while other students were focusing on midterms, football games and the fast-approaching Michigan winter, then-LSA senior Zachary Ackerman had something else on his mind. He was running for Ann Arbor City Council.
“I grew up in Ann Arbor and grew up as a pretty nerdy kid. When I was 15 and a student at Pioneer High School, that nerdiness channeled itself into an interest in politics and government. Figuring local government was the most approachable, I started attending City Council meetings,” Ackerman wrote in an email interview. “By early 2015, I had grown pretty unhappy with my representation on City Council and went out to find an alternative candidate. Unfortunately, I couldn't find one, so I threw my hat in the ring instead.”
He was not the first person to run for or sit on City Council as a student, but his involvement in local politics is certainly not the current norm for University of Michigan students. When Ackerman ran in 2015, The Daily reported a voter turnout of 0.81 percent of those registered in Ward 1’s first and second precinct and a voter turnout of 1.15 percent for Ward 4’s first precinct — all student-heavy areas. At Palmer Commons that year, a total of seven ballots were cast.
Ann Arbor has over 117,000 residents, but the University has over 44,000 students. Students make up a sizeable portion of the city, and many issues in town directly affect them. So why aren’t they voting?
“Students were obviously a very big part of that”
Low voter turnout among students is nothing new, nor is it unique to the University.
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, voter turnout at universities across the country in 2014 was just 19 percent. People under 30 voted at a rate of only 21 percent. The rest of the nation had a much higher turnout rate of 36 percent.
As director of the Campus Vote Project, an arm of the Fair Elections Legal Network, Michael Burns is hoping to change that reality.
“One of the things (the Fair Elections Legal Network) noticed in trying to help remove these barriers to registration for voting for underserved populations was that students were obviously a very big part of that,” Burns said. “Back in 2012 we started the Campus Vote Project to have the biggest impact on that.”
The Campus Vote Project aims to address the issue by focusing on voter registration, voter education and voter turnout efforts all in a non-partisan or politically-neutral way. Last year, the organization started a program to train colleges to increase these efforts. According to Burns, they took about 100 statements of interest from campuses that wanted to participate and ran those schools through an educational program on how to get students to register and turn out to vote.
This year, after reviewing feedback and looking at the progress each campus made, the Campus Vote Project gave the designation of ‘Voter Friendly Campus’ to 83 institutions. The University of Michigan is not included on this list.
“We’re below average, Michigan is right now”
It’s not just local elections that are forgotten at the University. Turnout numbers for the 2016 presidential election, while significantly higher, were still low among students. According to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement report, only 44.7 percent of the University’s students voted last fall, and only 68.2 percent were registered.
Professor Edie Goldenberg, a former dean of LSA and director of the Ford School of Public Policy, said she is concerned about these figures. At a plenary session of the Michigan Political Science Association last week, she participated in a panel of students and faculty from schools all over the state on the topic of how to increase student voting.
“Both Oakland University and Wayne State University have higher voter turnout rates than University of Michigan and Michigan State,” Goldenberg said. “It’s our hope that we can make our numbers improve and become more respectable. We’re below average, Michigan is right now, based upon our 2016, our 2014, and our 2012 numbers … for large public universities. And Michigan doesn’t like to be below average in anything.”
This low turnout might not be entirely students’ fault. According to Goldenberg, Michigan’s voting laws are unfriendly compared to other states’. Michigan is classified by voting advocacy group Rock the Vote as a “blocker,” the category of states that make it most difficult for their residents to vote. Michigan doesn’t have same-day registration, online registration — all things that make it easier for people, and especially students, to vote.
“Obviously it’s not the only reason, because Wayne State and Oakland did it, and they’re in Michigan also,” Goldenberg said. “The Wayne State Student Government is very active; our student government has been very active. But we’re all working together now on this Big 10 Voting challenge, and I think that Michigan will do much better going forward because we have support from the President on down, really.”
The Big 10 Voting Challenge, an initiative started by University President Mark Schlissel, has turned voter turnout into a competition among the fourteen schools in the Big 10 Conference. The winner will be determined based on which school has the highest turnout rate in the 2018 midterm elections.
This is just one way the University is working to change the voting narrative on campus. Goldenberg is also working with a group of about forty students and faculty on the Turn Up Turnout initiative, which partners with TurboVote to get students registered quickly and runs workshops for college and high school students to promote voter education, and also puts a tab for registration on Wolverine Access.
“We set up tables at every orientation session this summer for new students and we helped them access TurboVote and get signed up,” she said. “This means that in the mail, they’ll receive a voter registration card that is partially filled out, along with a stamped envelope. It also will provide them with election reminders (for wherever they register). We helped provide access to about 15,000 students this summer, and we’ve been looking for opportunities to table since then.”
One of the things Goldenberg and the Turn Up Turnout team have discovered is that certain groups of students are more likely to vote than others. STEM students, for example, vote at an even lower rate than that of the entire University. Music, Theatre & Dance junior David Kamper, a science student himself, is working with Turn Up Turnout and science policy organization 314Action to develop programs that will directly target the University’s students in the sciences to show them how important their vote is.
“Science students are among the worst student voter turnout, just due to classes and the questions about applicability,” Kamper said. “One of our initiatives we’re gonna really hit hard come January 2018 is ‘From Lab to Booth,’ where we get scientists in the community and scientists in the University to get out of the lab and back into the voting booth.”
Kamper is still registered to vote at home in Minnesota, but plans on changing his registration to Ann Arbor for next year’s midterm elections.
“Voting and understanding issues goes completely beyond just voting for president every four years.”
Even with the increased rates of registration Goldenberg and her team are trying to promote, many students like Kamper are choosing to register in their hometowns. This only furthers the lack of student involvement in Ann Arbor politics.
Proving this point, Enrique Zalamea, an LSA senior and president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, is registered in New Jersey. He said, though, his organization has done work for local elections in the past. While they are not campaigning for any City Council candidates this year (there are no Republicans on the ballot), they have canvassed for gubernatorial candidates and state Senate candidates. Zalamea thinks part of the reason students are so inactive when it comes to local elections is because local officials aren’t reaching out to them.
“I suppose you can take a look at it in terms of the lack of inaction from college students in local level politics might be because people from that level don’t reach out to us,” Zalamea said. “The Colbeck for Governor campaign reached out to us … If anyone from the local City Council wanted to come speak to us, then we’d be more than happy to, if they wanted us to volunteer for us or canvass, we’d be more than happy to do that as well. It’s been kind of silent on their part.”
Public Policy senior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, is also registered to vote elsewhere. She said her group has also not officially helped with any Council campaigns this year, though they have been contacted about supporting ballot initiatives.
“We have been reached out to on a few ballot initiatives that are going up,” Conybeare said. “We have not endorsed any. But if someone reaches out to me and asks if they can come talk about a city issue, we always work with them to inform our members and get the word out.”
This idea of “getting the word out” seems to be both the most important and most challenging piece of the puzzle for those who are involved in city politics. LSA senior Jeremy Glick sits on the City Council Student Advisory Committee, and he said the committee is talking about not just how to get students registered, but how to get them informed.
“This is obviously something we’re taking on with this new registration challenge, but it’s something we’ve also talked about as well — about informing students of what’s going on at a local level,” Glick said. “Especially when things like rent prices, where buildings are, how many units are available are so important to us as students are really formed at the council level … One of the biggest things I wish students would realize, especially those who aren’t from Michigan, or from this part of Michigan, is that voting and understanding issues goes completely beyond just voting for president every four years.”
LSA junior Sam Weinberger is another member of the small minority of students involved in local politics. Serving as the field director for Jared Hoffert’s City Council campaign in Ann Arbor’s 2nd Ward, Weinberg echoed Glick’s message.
“I think there’s a lot of focus — by all people but especially young people — to focus on a higher voter turnout in national elections rather than state elections,” Weinberger said. “But a lot of change can occur in local elections, which I think is underappreciated … I just wish voter turnout was a lot higher.”
“I don’t think students realize how much power they have in town.”
Among City Council candidates themselves, the views on student involvement are mixed.
Ann Arbor resident Diane Giannola, currently running for a Ward 4 seat on City Council, told The Daily in a video interview last week that she doesn’t feel most of the city’s issues actually apply to students.
“There’s only specific items that are relevant to students,” Giannola said. “I think people make too big of a deal about students not voting, because I think most students still have their licenses at their home address, which is where they’re politically involved… I understand that students don’t care about it. There’s nothing that’s gonna get them out to vote. But they can have a big impact on those things that are right around campus. But they have to want to have an impact. We can’t make them come out to vote.”
Giannola’s opponent and current City Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, thinks just the opposite. Also in a video interview with The Daily last week, he said students have the power to shape the issues City Council discusses if they get involved.
“I don’t think students realize just how much power they have in town,” Eaton said. “You should demand more. You should get the city to respond to the things you care about.”
Ackerman, who’s also running for reelection in Ward 3 next week, has graduated from the University since he first won his seat in 2015. Nonetheless, he still thinks student involvement in local elections is as important as ever.
“At the local level, decisions impact your life most directly,” Ackerman wrote. “Do you hate potholes? Do you want more housing options? Do you believe in policing reform? Do you want a train to Detroit? Do you want to feel safe when you walk home at night? These decision are made or influenced at the local level. And, these decision affect your life everyday.”