It’s been long suspected that the division of Ann Arbor’s wards has lessened student influence in city politics. According to a recent report by The Michigan Daily, the large concentration of students who live on Central Campus and the immediate surrounding area has been divided since 1967 into five pie-shaped city wards, or representative districts, that converge at the center of campus and span outwards. Seeing that no ward’s population is comprised of over 29.4 percent University students, leaving no ward with a student majority, the impact of the student vote in city elections appears to be diminished. That said, the creation of a student-majority city ward is not the right step to increase student influence in Ann Arbor City Council decisions. Rather, a system that encourages students to get involved in the city is a better-suited solution moving forward.
Redrawing boundaries to create a student-dominated ward would not be unprecedented. The University of California, Berkeley student population passed a measure last November that created a student-majority district in Berkeley. Burlington, VT, home of the University of Vermont, recently announced a new student ward, Ward 8, in which students will make up 70 percent of the population.
A student-majority ward would bring benefits to the student population and the city, but is not a realistic solution for increasing the student population’s political involvement for local initiatives. The student population of the University is just recently becoming politically active in the local realm and experiences constant population change with students graduating each year. Of the 34,000 students eligible to vote, only 7,000 are registered to do so. In addition, out of those 7,000, only 1,900 voted in the past election. Therefore, if students do not vote in a ward specifically devoted to them, elections will remain an inaccurate representation of the student population’s concerns, meaning the issue remains unsolved.
Creating a student-majority ward should not be a priority. Instead, the student population needs to participate in city government at an increased rate. Recently, tension between students and the city has revolved around issues of affordable housing, transportation and taxes. If students carried more political sway, some of these problems are more likely to be solved. While the University is large and may dissuade students from taking action in order to solve important issues, if students were more aware of the impact they could make on city issues, it would bridge the gap between the city and the University, one that has grown and continues to do so.
To increase student involvement without the creation of a student-majority ward, a student committee should be formed within the Office of Student Life. This committee would help facilitate student gatherings where City Council issues could be discussed. These student leaders will run the meetings, regulate debate and collect student opinions to act as liaisons between students and City Council members. City Council members should make an effort to come to some of these “town hall-esque” meetings and meet with committee members on a regular basis to hear student concerns and consider them when making their decisions. This type of forum would allow students to have the opportunity to take leadership roles in the city, become more involved with members of the community beyond campus and become real stakeholders in government decisions. The opinions and solutions generated from these forums will lead to informed City Council decisions and a more accurate representation of the student population.