University of Michigan students turned out in record numbers for the November 2020 election, with 78.1% casting a ballot, according to a report by the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. This outpaces the 66% turnout across all of the campuses included in the report and mirrors the 79% turnout in Washtenaw County.
Nevertheless, student voters at the University have historically demonstrated low turnout in local elections, leaving some to consider that the turnout problem doesn’t solely lie in students not wanting to engage but in other factors such as voting accessibility.
This could boil down to a long-debated structural issue — the 1956 adoption of Ann Arbor’s pie-shaped ward map. The 1956 City Charter established five pie-shaped wards, and in an April 1967 election, Charter Amendment Three passed, codifying the requirement that there be five wards that are compact, of similar population and wedge-shaped, tapering from the city’s edge into Downtown Ann Arbor.
This pie-shaped requirement effectively splits up student neighborhoods surrounding the University, making it difficult for students to hold a majority in a single ward. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, said some community members have claimed that the pie-shaped requirement was “Republican gerrymandering” implemented to intentionally crack students into multiple wards, although it is unclear whether that is the case.
In an email to The Daily, Kenichi Lobbezoo, Ann Arbor Student Advisory Council chair and Skyline High School senior, wrote that the pie-shaped wards dilute college student voices in government.
“Whether intentionally or not, the current ward structure has the effect of basically gerrymandering student votes,” Lobbezoo wrote. “If students are split up into different wards where they’re in the minority, it’s that much harder to elect one of their own.”
In March 1967, a month prior to the election which codified the pie-shaped ward requirement, City Council Democrats proposed a six-ward plan, which they believed would provide students stronger representation and increase the ties between councilmembers to their constituents. The plan was struck down by the Council’s 7-4 Republican majority, preserving the five-ward system.
At the time, council Republicans claimed the Democrats’ plan would decrease council efficiency and was designed as a power grab, but then-City Attorney Jacob Fahrner Jr. penned an opinion claiming that the change would not, in fact, establish minority rule.
In April 1967, the community had the opportunity to vote on Charter Amendment Four, which proposed a six-ward requirement, but the amendment failed amid a Republican sweep of the election.
Now, more than 50 years later, the five-ward, pie-shaped map persists, with City Council recently approving a pie-shaped reapportionment of wards despite claims the new map sustains the status quo and disenfranchises students.
The primary problem
Ann Arbor holds its primaries in August, before students come back to campus. A Republican has not held a City Council seat since 2005, meaning primary elections tend to be the deciding election for City Council seats because Democratic primary winners typically either beat a Republican challenger or run unopposed in the general election.
Since most students are out of town, they miss the determining election for their Councilmember.
Rackham student Amir Fleischmann, contract committee co-chair for the Graduate Employees’ Organization, said in an interview with The Daily the August primaries prevent students from both voting and running for office.
“The way City Council is elected with the de facto election being the Democratic primary that takes place in August disempowers students,” Fleischmann said. “It’s not really possible for (students) to run for these positions, so we can’t have representation on council in the way that others are able to.”
Student voters have historically encountered obstacles in registering to vote, and students who move residences between wards from year to year face the challenges of having to update their voter registration and becoming acquainted with their new councilmembers.
More than 48,000 students are enrolled at the University of Michigan, but it is unclear what proportion of Ann Arbor’s 113,000 residents are students. Students have historically been undercounted by the census, with the lowest census response rate being in student dominated neighborhoods.
Despite students making up a significant, yet ill-defined chunk, of Ann Arbor’s population, they are rarely elected to council. The most recent student Councilmember, Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, served from 2015 to 2020 and was the first student elected in more than two decades.
Nithya Arun, president of Central Student Government and Public Health senior, said since students make up such a large percentage of the population, their interests should be represented on City Council.
“When we look at the composition of City Council, none of them are students currently, which kind of doesn’t make sense, because a lot of Ann Arbor is (composed) of students,” Arun said. “(Students) are a significant population, and any type of population, for that matter, deserves representation.”
Notably, in Kang’s race, zero votes were cast from Ward 2’s Second Precinct which encompasses Mary Markley Residence Hall. Had the election been held when Markley’s more than 1,100 student residents were moved in, it is possible Kang could have mustered enough student votes to carry him to victory.
Students seek a piece of the pie
Arun, Fleischmann, Griswold and Lobbezoo all pointed to a student being elected to City Council as a possible immediate way to increase student representation on local issues.
“The most direct solution is to elect more students to local government,” Lobbezoo wrote. “The more young people you have in local government, the more local government is going to be receptive to the priorities of young people.”
Nevertheless, the time commitment required for a council member can serve as a barrier to entry for college students. Councilmembers and the mayor are considered part-time workers, and many hold full-time jobs, although balancing day jobs and council duties can be difficult.
“I’ve never met a student who wanted to be on council at the same time they were a U of M student,” Griswold said.
Student interest in holding public office may be limited, but it isn’t nonexistent. Last year, students formed the Coalition to Elect Students to the Board of Regents, as they felt representation was lacking on the board.
In an interview with The Daily, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said if a student were to be elected to City Council, they would have to be able to understand the interest of all of their constituents — including non-students.
“The student who wishes to be elected has to understand their potential constituents and to communicate to them why (the student) will be the best representative for them,” Taylor said. “Unless you intentionally gerrymander the student district, then any student running for office would need to ensure that their campaign included and spoke to the hopes and dreams of non-students.”
Fleischmann said the lack of a student councilmember results in City Council overlooking student issues.
“Renters are the majority of the city, students are a majority of the city’s renters, but there isn’t a single renter on City Council,” Fleischmann said. “As a byproduct of that, we have a situation where landlords basically think they run the town, and they make our lives miserable, and the early leasing cycle is only one example of this, and City Council doesn’t really notice.”
“In terms of the Early Leasing Ordinance, that finally got passed over the summer, and it was with a lot of effort from GEO’s end, as well as CSG’s end, and we’re glad that it eventually came through,” Arun said. “The problem with it now is that there are a lot of loopholes … (so) the ordinance has really no effect.”
Arun said that even though the ordinance has passed, she now has to speak to Student Legal Services and other officials to try to have the law’s loopholes addressed.
“I think (City Council) being more responsive to student concerns is essential,” Arun said. “If we had adequate representation in local politics, (the loopholes) could be addressed effectively and expediently.”
Structural election issues limit student representation and further a lack of receptiveness to student issues, Lobbezoo said.
“Students are clearly underrepresented on the City Council,” Lobbezoo wrote. “I think it’s very likely the city would act more boldly on issues like housing and climate change if people who are closer to those issues had more influence.”
Despite student concerns that their interests are being neglected, Mayor Taylor emphasized the need to push for “housing density and affordability,” “non-motorized infrastructure” and “community-wide carbon neutrality by 2030.”
“I feel like there’s a high level of alignment (between my concerns and students’),” Taylor said. “(Students) want housing that is safe and affordable. They want a community that takes rigorous and ambitious action with respect to climate change … So, I think student interests and the current trajectory of the municipal government are very much looking in the same direction.”
Still, Fleischmann sees a need for City Council to put their words into action in terms of housing affordability.
“(The) number one (issue City Council could better address) is definitely housing,” Fleischmann said. “The situation is very, very bad for people … For GEO members, the average rent in Ann Arbor is around 50% of the salary that our contract provides. So, we’re being squeezed by the University on one side and rents on the other side, and City Council is just not doing enough.”
Bridging the gap between students and municipal government
Student organizations such as GEO, CSG and the University’s chapter of College Democrats play a significant role in representing student interests to City Council, working on issues such as the Early Leasing Ordinance and ameliorating low student turnout. Fleischmann said student activism was important in getting City Council to pass the Early Leasing Ordinance.
“For us to get a change like the Early Leasing Ordinance, it took students, grad and undergrad, GEO and CSG, coming together and really putting City Council’s feet to the fire to get them to move,” Fleischmann said. “GEO is in a really unique position compared to grad unions in larger cities. Because with thousands of members, we’re a non-trivial percentage of the electorate, so City Council has to listen to us a little bit more, and we’ve been trying to apply that pressure more.”
CSG has government relations coordinators who work on student concerns with elected officials. Griswold said she has collaborated with CSG in the past on efforts to improve pedestrian lighting at crosswalks.
“The student voice is very strong at the University of Michigan, and so as an elected official, if I want to advocate for something, I always try to include the students,” Griswold said. “I really appreciate the energy that students bring and also both the Central Student Government meetings and the Michigan Dem meetings. I am always so impressed with how well the meetings are run.”
LSA junior Julia Schettenhelm, communications director of College Democrats, wrote in an email to The Daily that the organization helps to connect students with local government by hosting city officials at their meetings.
“Most recently, we have hosted Mayor Taylor twice and we engaged in informal Q&A sessions with him,” Schettenhelm wrote. “Our members were able to ask about proposals on the ballot, specific issues they’d like the city to address, and any other concerns they have.”
The Student Advisory Council was established in 2017 to consult with City Council on student issues and has been vocal regarding matters like food insecurity, street lighting and zoning changes for Greek houses. Lobbezoo pointed to the organization’s annual report, which highlights the SAC’s achievements.
“I’m proud of the in-depth work we’ve done with the Annual Report,” Lobbezoo wrote. “We had a recent success in our advocacy role — In September, the City Council enacted the Ann Arbor Lighting Ordinance, a measure designed to reduce light pollution and its negative environmental impacts.”
Lobbezoo also wrote that although SAC only plays a limited advisory role to City Council, it has still faced challenges with awareness and recognition.
“A City Councilmember and a representative from the City Administrator’s Office are supposed to attend SAC meetings,” Lobbezoo wrote. “Their attendance has often been spotty, which is unfortunate since being able to talk through issues with them would greatly inform our work.”
Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, is listed as the Councilmember responsible for engaging with SAC. She did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Daily.
“While I’m glad that SAC exists and that we’re able to provide input, we’re not a full board or commission, which I think has led to us being taken less seriously.” Lobbezoo wrote. “Our current setup allows us to be more flexible — we’re not subject to the rigid rules that boards and commissions are — but it’s come at the expense of influence.”
Lobbezoo also sees city commissions as a possible space for students to advocate their interests. Some students are involved with the city’s Energy Commission, and the new Renters Commission is seeking student members.
“(An) important step in my view is to increase the number of seats on city boards and commissions set aside for youth members,” Lobbezoo wrote.
Taylor said he doesn’t hear much from students on municipal issues, which he chalked up to the challenge of information distribution and students having a “campus-focused” experience.
“I think that students do very much have a role to play in and are impacted by local government in ways that they don’t understand,” Taylor said. “I think the way to increase their engagement is to help communicate to them the importance of what goes on in local government for their experience and the experience of their successors.”
Taylor said opportunities exist for students to get involved, including speaking at City Council meetings or getting involved in local government campaigns, but that students often engage on an “issue-by-issue basis” and prefer to seek change at the University level.
“I think it’s important for members of council and for the mayor to engage with students and to engage student issues and to participate in forums whenever requested. The policy board doesn’t have communications staff, and so that’s a little bit of a different lift,” Taylor said. “We do engage as an organization with the University with Campus Life and Beyond the Diag and some of the Greek organizational structures and work on issues of common interest that way.”
Arun said she would like to see more outreach from City Council to student stakeholders.
“Everyone nowadays has access to communication devices — you have a laptop, how hard is it to send an email out to student org groups? Their contact information is very transparent,” Arun said. “The onus is almost exclusively on city (councilmembers) to communicate with their constituents and also garner feedback on what else needs to be done in conjunction with students and student groups.”
Amending the City Charter to remove the pie-shaped ward requirement to limit the splitting of students into multiple wards has been in discussion since at least the early 2000s, but it has received little attention from students and lawmakers.
“Scrapping the pie-shaped wards and even establishing a dedicated ward where the majority of residents — or as close to a majority as you can get — are students would have a big impact on student representation.” Lobbezoo wrote.
To undo the requirement for pie-shaped wards, City Council could vote to put a proposal to amend the City Charter on the ballot in a future election. Community members could also place a proposal on the ballot through a Citizen-Initiated City Charter Amendment, which would require the collection of signatures of more than 5% of Ann Arbor’s registered voters, roughly 5,700 people.
City Clerk Jackie Beaudry told MLive that even if a proposal passed to undo the requirement, it might not take effect until after 2030 when lines are redrawn with new census data. City Attorney Stephen Postema told MLive he would need to look into the issue further. Postema did not respond to a request for comment by The Daily.
Taylor said he doesn’t have a position on removing the requirement for pie-shaped wards, but he understands the critique of the layout.
“The benefit of the pie-shaped ward is that it does give some of downtown to all the councilmembers, and it also kind of removes redistricting as a matter of political machination here in the city,” Taylor said. “But, at the same time, it does appear to have (the effect of splitting up students), given how the student population has centralized, I do see it.”
Griswold said she supports removing the requirement for pie-shaped wards and that she wouldn’t see the change as significantly affecting the politics of the redistricting process.
“I would prefer to give the people making the (redistricting) decision in 2030 the most flexibility … we might end up with pie-shape wards, I don’t know, but I don’t think that should be required,” Griswold said. “I’m more than willing to bring a resolution forward, but I’m waiting for people in the Democratic Party and for the students to sort of build up the momentum for that. It should come from the students rather than from me.”
When asked about the 1967 proposal for a sixth ward, Griswold said she doesn’t have a strong opinion, but she said the potential for better representation has to be weighed against the added difficulty of deliberating with additional councilmembers.
Implementing November nonpartisan city elections and scrapping the August primary could substantially increase student turnout. Nonpartisan elections have been under consideration for decades, and they have been a hotly-debated issue in recent years.
In 2015, 2016 and 2018, City Council struck down resolutions to put a proposal for nonpartisan elections on the ballot. In 2019 and 2020, resolutions were passed by City Council, but they were both vetoed by Mayor Taylor, and in 2019, an attempt at a veto override failed.
All of the attempts were spearheaded by former Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2. Lumm served on City Council as a Republican in the 1990s, as an Independent in the 2010s and decided to run as a Democrat in 2020, when she lost to Councilmember Linh Song, D-Ward 2.
Lumm pushed for nonpartisan elections with the hopes of improving student turnout, saying the removal of the party label helps accentuate policy differences between candidates. She said most cities in Michigan hold nonpartisan elections, and so do comparable college towns such as Berkeley, Calif., and Madison, Wis.
Taylor said he is opposed to nonpartisan elections because of the importance of party labels and he hopes students can benefit from the diversity of candidates that the newly-adopted rank-choice voting system could afford.
“The partisan label does not ensure agreement, but it does speak to your political philosophy — the role of government in society, your views on science, your willingness to recognize the legacy of white supremacy and strive to do something about it,” Taylor said. “I believe and will continue to do everything I can to ensure that we continue to have partisan elections at the city level.”
Griswold pushed back against the idea that party labels are essential to local elections.
“In Ann Arbor, the Democratic label is absolutely meaningless. We have corporate Dems who have access to a significant amount of money for campaigns, and then we have some of the more back-to-basics-type candidates, which I would consider myself one, and so we’re all Democrats,” Griswold said. “The Democratic label wouldn’t tell you anything if people were running for school board — that’s nonpartisan.”
Lobbezoo said other cities hold nonpartisan elections without facing significant challenges and removing the August primary would provide students a stronger voice.
“While I think primary elections have an important function in that they weed out unpopular candidates that might overcrowd a general election … I think a non-partisan November election would be an improvement over the status quo,” Lobbezoo wrote.
“It is, frankly, very frustrating, because I think that while one can debate the merits of nonpartisan versus partisan local elections, there’s no argument that I can see for not allowing voters to decide the question,” Lumm told The Daily in 2018.
Other college towns could provide a blueprint for students in Ann Arbor looking to increase their sway. East Lansing holds nonpartisan elections, elects at-large Councilmembers and assembled a task force two decades ago to address student turnout that helped Michigan State University better connect students with election resources.
In a similar attempt to make voting more accessible and boost turnout among students in November 2020, the Ann Arbor City Clerk opened a satellite office at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The central location on campus allowed students to vote early, register to vote and request a ballot.
In Berkeley in 2014, college students fought for and succeeded in solidifying a student-majority City Council ward. Currently, a University of California, Berkeley Class of 2018 alumnus represents the ward, but students have had to continue to push for representation with new rounds of redistricting.
In 2015, The Michigan Daily’s Editorial Board deemed a student-majority ward an unrealistic solution for increasing student involvement in Ann Arbor. According to the board, a student-majority City Council district would not be a long-term cure-all for student representation but would require sustained engagement over the years as students cycle in and out of campus.
Regardless of what structural measures might exist to boost student involvement, Fleischmann said there is no reason for students to wait to advocate for their concerns in local government.
“If we want change, we’re going to have to make it ourselves. We cannot wait around for City Council to make change on our behalf, because they’re not going to do it,” Fleischmann said. “Their interests are often opposed to our interests as people who rent and don’t own property. So they’re not going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts, and if students aren’t going to vote, if students aren’t going to pay attention, why would they?”
Lobbezoo underscored that while national politics often overshadow local issues, municipal governments hold a significant role in implementing tangible improvements in citizen’s lives.
“It’s essential for students to get involved in local government … Housing, police reform, transportation — these are all issues that are mostly addressed at the local level,” Lobbezoo wrote. “I would encourage people to find some way to get involved either by canvassing for a City Council candidate they support, joining an organization like SAC, or even running for local office.”
Taylor reiterated his view that opportunities for local student engagement are presently available.
“There are no barriers to entry to engagement in local government, simply because of student status,” Taylor said. “Students, while they’re here, are just as much (Ann Arborites) as anybody else, and it’s important for students to recognize that and have the confidence that if they do want to participate in government that it’s there waiting for them.”
Daily Staff Reporter Dominick Sokotoff can be reached at email@example.com.