U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor and multiple Ann Arbor City Council members gathered on Tuesday for a Representative Roundtable hosted by the University of Michigan Central Student Government. 

CSG President Ben Gerstein, Public Policy junior, introduced the panelists and led the panel with a series of questions regarding student involvement in the November 2020 elections. Approximately 25 people participated in the interactive Q&A session with the politicians in the Michigan Union.

Dingell touched on the importance of voting and praised the Big Ten Voting Competition from 2018, reiterating the impact that voting can make.

“I’ve just talked to most of you about a lot of issues you care about,” Dingell said. “Your vote makes a difference. President Trump won this state by a very narrow margin of the popular vote. If more students had voted … it might have made a difference, and people need to know your vote matters.”

In anticipation of the November elections, panelists described what they are doing to mobilize student voters. Taylor discussed ways college students can vote, including absentee ballots and additional voting locations to make voting more convenient for students.

“Our goal is to also have on-campus locations where we can have staff members there to provide in-person, absentee access for student voters for weeks in advance of the election,” Taylor said. “Our goal is to enhance the student vote this November, just from the municipal side, communicate absentee, in-person absentee … make sure that students know that that’s going to be available on campus and then increase throughput at precincts.”

The panel then discussed college affordability and its impact on students at the University. Benji Timpf, regional coordinator for U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, stressed the senator’s focus on college affordability.

“The Senator has been doing work to hold the Department of Ed accountable to ensure that the loans students are receiving, they know the conditions of those loans,” Tim said. “The Senator has been pushing to hold the Department of Ed accountable, increase the availability of those programs’ work … (and) making Department of Ed more accessible and understandable to students.”

City Council members weighed in on housing affordability and efforts to address the issue. Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, discussed the disparity between the 10,000-person increase in University enrollment and the 6,000-bedroom increase in housing.

“That doesn’t quite add up,” Ackerman said. “Simple math tells us there’s an imbalance. We have a supply issue. So, we need to address supply by building new housing.”

Ackerman said City Council is working on zoning rules and increased incentives for building. The council is also looking into building on land already owned by the municipality as well as regulating the market of short-term rental properties.

Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, suggested thinking of campus affordability in relation to community affordability.

“One way to reframe the issues is that a lot of issues that are important to affordability are important for our community more broadly,” Grand said. “Sometimes we put student issues in this bubble where they really don’t belong because you’re a really important part of our community. … What’s good for students is what’s good for our community.”

Following a question from the audience regarding divisiveness in public discourse, Dingell addressed her role in this and her interactions with President Donald Trump via social media.

“I think the biggest fear to our democracy is the hatred and division in this country right now,” Dingell said. “I have seen hatred and vitriol and some of the worst rhetoric you can ever imagine. It’s simply not okay.”

Dingell, whose husband John Dingell passed away last February, said she plans to collaborate with Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain, for a tour centered around civility.

“We were both married to great men and heroes that we loved, and we’re going to talk about civility,” Dingell said. “You’re all communicators. You have to tell people it’s not okay. We have to stand up to the hatred in this country.”

In response to a question from the audience regarding health care, Dingell reinforced her message on the importance of engagement in this area.

“If you care about an issue, become engaged,” Dingell said. “Advocate, put the face on it, on the issues and … as we go into this year, we need to tell people about the importance of Medicaid and have people understand … it’s a child, it’s a senior that has nobody to care for them.”

LSA freshman Timothy Marvin, who attended the event, thought the conversation on the social media divide was especially pertinent to today’s political environment.

“I liked the kind of tangent we had about social media and more broadly the public discourse and where that’s at in the United States today,” Marvin said. “I think that’s like a real problem. Policy starts with how people talk, and the way people talk isn’t very collaborative right now. And you notice we’re very divided, so we don’t really get anything done.”

Reporter Remy Farkas can be reached at rsfarkas@umich.edu.

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