Drawing the Vote: Ann Arbor city wards split students

Cover by Jake Wellins
Buy this photo

By Austen Hufford, Daily Staff Reporter
and Pat Sier, For the Daily
Published February 3, 2015

When West Quad Residence Hall reopens next semester, residents will have to walk into another Ann Arbor city ward just to eat breakfast. Despite being across the street, South Quad Residence Hall and West Quad are in different wards — meaning they have separate representatives for Ann Arbor City Council. Situations like these arise across the University as all five of Ann Arbor’s wards converge on the Central Campus area.

Percent of all registered students found in each ward
Ward 1 24.54 percent
Ward 2 29.40 percent
Ward 3 14.72 percent
Ward 4 20.30 percent
Ward 5 10.64 percent

In Ann Arbor, the wards are used to determine representation on City Council. There are two City Council members to represent each of the five wards. The Ann Arbor City Council is the governing body of Ann Arbor and decides a number of important issues from taxation to local smoking policies.

The general shape of the wards is no accident. The Ann Arbor City Charter calls for the wards to have “the general character of a pieshaped [sic] segment of the City” focused “near the center of the city.” It has been this way since an amendment was passed in the election of 1967. The ward map seems, on its face, to cut up the student population of Ann Arbor into multiple wards. The Michigan Daily wanted to see if this was actually true.

To come up with the distribution of students across the city, we cross-referenced public voter registration records for the city of Ann Arbor, which include every voter’s full name and address, with the University’s MCommunity campus directory. While some students may have common names that incorrectly matched with voters, we only looked at voters that registered within the last 10 years whose full name matched exactly with someone holding a current student designation.

Through this analysis, we were able to create a map of the general distribution of students registered to vote in Ann Arbor. This map clearly shows that no more than 29.4 percent of the student population is contained within any one ward — despite a clear concentration of students in certain areas of the city.

While we only found approximately 7,000 registered student voters in Ann Arbor, for this analysis we assumed that their general distribution is consistent with the overall distribution of students across Ann Arbor. To see how this plays out with the overall number of students on campus (43,710) we can subtract international students ineligible to vote (9,047 as of 2014, according to the International Center) as well as students under 18 in September (approximately 750 according to the University Housing). This leaves us with about 34,000 students in a city of about 117,000.

Given that there were only 37,098 votes cast in the most recent November election in Ann Arbor, this is no insignificant number. Despite this, multiplying our 34,000 estimate by the distribution of students in each ward doesn’t result in a student majority in a single ward.

View our interactive ward map in full screen.

If there is any doubt about where students are concentrated, one look at our map should put that to rest. Traditional student housing areas including Hill Street and South Forest Avenue south of campus, Kerrytown north of campus, and the Geddes and Oxford area east of campus all show clear student populations. A quick glance also shows that each of these areas is in a different city ward.

It seems clear that the Ann Arbor ward map has the effect of splitting the student vote, but there isn’t much student vote to speak of. Out of the 7,000 students registered to vote in Ann Arbor, only 1,900 voted in the most recent Ann Arbor election. This raises multiple questions: if students aren’t going to show up at the polls, do they deserve a dedicated ward? Or is it even worth it for students to vote in Ann Arbor if their interests are clearly split between wards?

Will Leaf has a unique perspective in this debate. An Ann Arbor resident and University alum, Leaf was the co-chair of the Mixed Use Party, a political group focused on a relaxed zoning code in the city and ran several students for City Council in the 2013 elections.

Beyond the apparent lack of engagement with local politics, many feel that students do not have enough of a long-term stake in the Ann Arbor area to warrant any type of voting accommodation. Leaf disagrees. He believes that students’ unique position as residing in Ann Arbor without strong ties to property ownership actually gives them a longer-term perspective on issues like the environment and property development.

This is not to say that when students vote, their votes are better or worse — just different. However, Leaf feels they’re not as different as they seem. He spoke of campaigning with the Mixed Use Party and trying to appeal to student voters on issues of alcohol and student housing, that they often were more interested in the same issues as the rest of Ann Arbor.

He painted a picture that was far from the idea of the radical student liberal or uncaring college student, and suggested more that increased student involvement was possible, albeit unlikely, in the city.

High student participation recently became a reality at the University of California- Berkeley.

The City Council in Berkeley passed a city charter change that enacts a map including a student-majority ward into law. One of the organizers of the campaign, Berkeley alum Safeena Mecklai, explained that it was a lengthy process.

In some ways, their situation looked similar to what we’ve described here. Students were split among the city wards and weren’t able to have much representation in local government, which ultimately resulted in tensions between students and the city.

Mecklai recounted how they argued for a student ward largely on the basis of it being beneficial for both students and the city as a whole. With a government more responsive to student needs in the campus area, those issues became more likely to be addressed, and the issues less spread between different constituencies.

But the ward change was no magic bullet. Once students had a more consolidated representation, they had to register and vote to maintain it. Mecklai spoke of a concerted effort to register students to vote, not just anywhere, but in Berkeley specifically.

She believes both the years-long process of creating the ward and the final ward itself made a substantial change in city politics. Students are now more engaged, and government leaders listen to them as a valuable stakeholder.

What would that look like in Ann Arbor? While it’s difficult to speculate on the impact on town-gown relations, there is a way to see what the actual map would look like. It’s a bit more difficult in Ann Arbor than Berkeley, particularly because of the split between North and Central Campuses, but we believe it’s an idea worth discussing. To take this beyond hypothetical, we created a map using a mix of census data and the data we’ve collected to make a potential student ward that holds about 4,000 of the 7,000 students.

Continuing with the same distribution we’ve been using, that would make students about 19,500 of 23,000 total residents in the ward — a definite supermajority.

Creating a student-majority ward would be no easy task. Most likely a City Charter amendment would be required and then an entirely new ward map would need to be created and approved by the City Council.

While no proposal is perfect, Berkeley’s example as well as pure appearance would suggest that a more concentrated student ward would be worth examining further. Maybe students would not be able to sustain a ward, but with a chance at representation, at least they would have more of a reason to vote.