Last June, when LSA senior Eugene Kang announced he was running for City Council in the Ward 2 Democratic primary against former Republican mayoral candidate Stephen Rapundalo and held an afternoon deck party as one of his first campaign events, I stopped by to meet Kang and evaluate his chances. If elected, he would have been the first University student on City council in more than 30 years, providing students with a voice on a Council that appears to become more disconnected from, and even hostile to, Ann Arbor’s student population with each passing year.
I liked what I saw. Kang seemed to be a near-perfect candidate; he was bright, personable, enthusiastic and reasonable, with exciting ideas about development and about engaging students in city government, and with none of the inane fringe ideas that have characterized many other student candidates for office in recent memory.
More importantly, for a student candidate, Kang seemed to be in a particularly good position to win the Democratic primary. He was a progressive candidate running against a former Republican; he was a lifelong Ann Arbor resident; and, comfortably sporting an open-collared blue Oxford shirt with a navy blazer, he looked respectable and professional enough to make a good impression with homeowners in his ward, many of whom associate University students with noise violations and other Animal House-style antics. He also had strong ties with the local Korean community, which provided a small but dedicated base of support and helped him raise several times more money than his opponent. And he had a smart group of campaign advisers who were passionate about student representation in city government, including Law School student Alex Donn, who was introduced to Kang after writing an academic paper about the obstacles to student voting in Ann Arbor.
Kang’s campaign also came at a time when student interest in city politics, long dormant, appeared to be starting to spread. With a City Council that was threatening to ban couches from house porches and preparing to pass an anti-student parking measure during the summer, undergraduate and graduate students – many of them urban planning majors – began to coalesce around weblogs such as arborupdate.com, annarborisoverrated.com and goodspeedupdate.com, where they conversed about anti-student City Council actions, New Urbanism and the Greenway proposal. Urban planning graduate student Dale Winling was just launching the New West Side Association, a neighborhood association intended to counteract the traditional homeowner-run, and politically powerful, Ann Arbor neighborhood associations by representing the political interests of students and renters. Even The Ann Arbor News took notice of the sudden resurgence of student interest in local politics: In an article headlined “Students want their say,” News reporter Tom Gantert, while allowing that “few would argue that college students have a say in the Ann Arbor political arena,” cited Kang, the New West Side and the local blogs as signs that “this mostly transient population may be seeking a stronger voice in local politics.”
Unfortunately, student candidates in Ann Arbor City Council primaries face one nearly insurmountable challenge: The primaries take place in early August, when most University students are out of town. The second ward, where Kang resides, is home to a large student population in the Hill residence halls – from September to April. The Hill residence halls are abandoned during the spring and summer semesters and, as a result, the voters in Kang’s ward during his primary were almost exclusively local residents. Kang also received no support from the local Democratic Party establishment, which, hoping to secure the formerly Republican-held Council seat, had recruited Rapundalo from the Republican Party and had no interest in a contested primary. Despite his unusual appeal to residents and a well-run campaign, Kang lost the primary by about 10 percent, or 95 votes.
There can be no doubt that, had the election been held while regular classes were in session, Kang would have won the primary handily. Under the current system, though, the only way Hill dorm residents could have voted for him was through absentee ballots. In the absence of any effort by Voice Your Vote to educate the ward’s student voters on how to vote absentee, it simply didn’t happen. Ward 2’s second precinct, which comprises Mary Markley Residence Hall and only a few nearby houses, cast zero ballots.
During the months leading up to the November 2004 presidential election, while he took classes at the University as a full-time student, Pete Woiwode estimates he spent 60 to 80 hours a week running Voice Your Vote, the Michigan Student Assembly commission responsible for turnout of student voters. “I got in a fair amount of academic trouble,” he says, laughing. Woiwode’s enthusiasm seems to have been contagious. Commission leaders estimate Voice Your Vote had a core group of about 20 people who worked at least three nights a week and 70 who put in one night a week. Those who counted themselves among the core group, the truly dedicated, talk about those few months the way an aging mountain climber recalls his conquest of Kilimanjaro; they beam with pride recounting their unlikely triumphs over adversity, their staggering numbers, their mentions in several national media outlets. Talking with them, you get a sense that they truly believed, and still believe, in registering students to vote as a noble calling and a grand achievement.
As an example of the brute power of a dedicated and passionate group of students, last year’s iteration of Voice Your Vote is certainly impressive. Under Woiwode’s leadership, it pioneered ambitious techniques such as the “Dorm Storm,” in which an army of volunteers invaded the University’s residence halls to knock on every door with a voter registration form. After being denied access to the University’s Telefund phone-bank facilities, volunteers used their own cell phones to place more than 20,000 calls to students – starting with all the students they had registered to vote, then moving on to all the phone lines in the residence halls, then beginning on all the numbers in the University’s directory with a 734 area code – telling people how to find their polling locations and when they could vote. All told, Voice Your Vote turned in more than 10,000 voter registration forms – a record number for the commission, equal to about a fourth of all students at the University.
The network of activists that made this effort possible wasn’t started from scratch. As The Michigan Review noted disapprovingly at the time, the nonpartisan Voice Your Vote’s membership overlapped to a suspicious degree with that of several liberal campus groups, including College Democrats and Student Voices in Action. As evidence of Voice Your Vote’s hidden liberal leanings, the Review provided an e-mail sent from College Democrats chair Ramya Raghavan to the College Democrats list asking members to “wear the nonpartisan hat for mere hours” and volunteer to help Voice Your Vote register voters in the dorms.
It is undeniable that Voice Your Vote’s leadership came largely from the ranks of mostly liberal partisan activists. Still, for all the complaints the Review raised, there was no evidence that the normally partisan activists abused the group’s nonpartisan status. There were a couple reports of anti-Bush messages, apparently by accident or merely out of habit, showing up alongside voter registration materials; then-MSA President Jason Mironov, appearing at a Michael Moore event to promote Voice Your Vote, was embarrassed when a PowerPoint slide behind him asked students to “get W out of office.” But Voice Your Vote leaders, trying to collect as many registration forms as possible – and receiving $1.50 for the group’s operations for each one – had little incentive to actually avoid registering conservative voters. And except for perhaps a few dozen conservative activists and Michigan Review editors, it seems unlikely that conservative students would have been aware enough of such missteps to avoid Voice Your Vote tables and volunteers.
There are more substantial drawbacks to the volunteer activist-run model for Voice Your Vote. The first is that it takes a massive amount of time and energy from a huge number of students to operate – and that energy evaporates quickly when the momentum a presidential election provides is lost. Local elections, as last year’s Voice Your Vote volunteer coordinator Rosie Goldensohn put it, are “much less sexy than national elections.”
Sexiness isn’t necessarily a concern for people like Woiwode and Goldensohn – students who are fervently dedicated to helping students maximize their voice in elections, and who speak as passionately about student turnout locally as at the national level. But sexiness is a make-or-break factor in an organization that relies heavily on mobilizing a massive number of volunteers.
And moreover, the resources at Voice Your Vote’s disposal last year might be unique to the 2004 election. Few people realize that Voice Your Vote’s efforts and materials – its ubiquitous blue T-shirts, for example – were largely funded by the group Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, of which the University is a member, and which paid Voice Your Vote the $1.50 for each registration form it turned in. The MOSES money is a resource that might not be available in the future. As Woiwode notes in a document outlining last year’s effort, “the phenomenon of organizations paying for voter registration forms was an outgrowth mainly of (billionaire and major liberal philanthropist) George Soros’s investment in traditionally left-leaning groups and their attempts to oust President Bush. This may not last as an institution.” Although Woiwode goes on to say Voice Your Vote could get more money from MSA in the future, the 8,000 dollars of Soros’s money the group received last year was a real boost to its efforts, and its loss would be significant.
The second problem is that, with no leaders who remain involved for more than a couple of years and minimal involvement from knowledgeable University and city officials, Voice Your Vote is poorly equipped to identify and solve the complex and subtle long-term barriers to student political participation in Ann Arbor. The group starts anew every four years at best, meaning that dedicated leaders like Woiwode spend most of their time hammering out logistics. If some of the basic functions of Voice Your Vote were institutionalized at the University level, someone like Woiwode could free up some time spent on the nuts and bolts of voter registration and focus on finding ways to remove the institutional roadblocks to student voting in Ann Arbor.
If one were to design a college town with the specific goal of making it difficult for students to influence local elections, Ann Arbor would be a pretty good model from which to start. In some ways, students are to Ann Arbor what the Kurdish population is to Iraq: They make up about a third of the city’s population, and yet they have virtually no influence in the city’s governance. This is accomplished – whether by accident or by design, I’ll leave for someone else to speculate – by a system of five wards, each of which is represented by two members of City Council. The wards are drawn in a roughly pie-shaped arrangement, each starting near the middle of Central Campus and spreading outward in a different direction. The effect is to divide the student population as evenly as possible among the five wards, preventing students from asserting a firm grip on any single ward’s City Council seats.
While students do compose at least a healthy portion of the population during the regular academic year in some wards – whether they approach a majority in any ward is unclear because the census doesn’t distinguish between student and nonstudent residents, and its data aren’t broken down by ward – they don’t come anywhere near a majority of voters in any ward. There are several reasons for this. One is inherent to the average age of college students. Most incoming students have never voted before and have no experience in registering to vote; as such, they need more assistance in the process than older residents.
Another is a statewide issue. Thanks to the “Motor Voter” bill, pushed through the state Legislature in 1999 by then-state Sen. Mike Rogers, students must vote at the precinct representing the address on their driver’s license; a student who wants to register to vote at his campus address must change his permanent address, which entails affixing a sticker to his driver’s license. Although the process is relatively easy, for many students registering to vote, it simply represents a confusing extra step. Ask a student to register to vote and present him with the option of voting at home or on campus, and he will most likely opt to vote on campus, simply because most major elections take place during the regular academic year, and voting where you live is more convenient than going home to vote. Present a student with the option of registering to vote at home or changing his permanent address to his dorm room, and going home to vote starts to sound more reasonable.
But perhaps the most glaring is a problem specific to Ann Arbor. Because of the way the ward map divides the residence halls and student neighborhoods, students – the majority of whom move to a different residence hall or to a house or apartment after their first year and continue moving around the city until they graduate – rarely stay in the same ward, let alone the same precinct, throughout their academic careers at the University.
Take, for example, a freshman who lives and registers to vote in Mary Markley (Ward 2) or Bursley (Ward 1). If he decides to move to, say, South Quad (Ward 4) or the Park Plaza apartment complex on S. University Avenue (Ward 3), he will have to re-register to vote – and, if he had learned anything about the City Council representatives from his old ward, he will have to acquaint himself with a new pair. It isn’t hard to imagine a student living in four or even five different wards – and, if he wants to have a voice in city elections, registering to vote four or five times – throughout his time living in Ann Arbor. Those who blame students for being apathetic about city politics should imagine how much they would know about their City Council representatives if they had lived in their ward for only one year. In all likelihood, the vast majority of University students don’t even know which ward they live in.
Why should it be so hard for students to engage in the city’s governance? Some (including, incidentally, an Ann Arbor Police Department patrolman whom I recently overheard engaged in this very debate with a colleague of mine while breaking up a block party on Greenwood Road) argue that students, unlike homeowners, don’t pay property taxes to the city and don’t deserve a say in City Hall. In fact, students who live off-campus do pay property taxes indirectly through their landlords, and although students living in the residence halls don’t pay property taxes to the city, it is worth recognizing that the city as we know it wouldn’t exist without the University and its students. Economically and culturally, Ann Arbor was built around the University, and in an era in which an educated workforce is the key to attracting businesses, the city depends more than ever on the University. Individual students may come and go, but the student population as a community is vital to the city, and it does deserve a voice in its government.
East Lansing, the city that surrounds Michigan State University, evidently recognizes this principle. While there are no Michigan State students currently sitting on City Council, the city’s government is set up in a way that allows students much more influence in local elections. For one thing, City Council candidates are elected at-large, allowing the entire student community to rally behind or against a Council member who represents or attacks their interests. Also, East Lansing’s city elections are nonpartisan, unlike those in Ann Arbor, where the difference between Democrats and Republicans is often indiscernible, and where neither party relies on students as a constituency. As Larry Kestenbaum, the Washtenaw County clerk and register of deeds – who grew up in East Lansing, where he served as a planning commissioner and county commissioner – put it in an e-mail to me:
Any political scientist will tell you that nonpartisan elections tend to accentuate natural divisions in the electorate, whereas partisan elections tend to downplay those divisions.
In East Lansing, pro-student City Council candidates routinely get 90 percent of the vote in MSU dorm precincts, while Democrats running in partisan elections would typically get only about 60 percent. Winning 90-10 gives you an 80-point margin, while winning 60-40 is only worth 20 points. In other words, when their interests are clear, students can have enormously more impact in a nonpartisan election.
Perhaps as a result of those structural differences with Ann Arbor, or perhaps out of simple decency, East Lansing officials recognized the low student turnout after the 2000 presidential election and formed a nine-member elections task force, in part, to deal with it. In its report, released the following April, the task force – which included city and county officials, as well as a student government official – noted the difficulties students faced because of the Motor Voter law and, among other recommendations, called for the formation of a coalition between Michigan State University administrators and city officials to “plan, coordinate and implement an effective voter registration and ‘get out the vote’ drive on campus annually.”
Such a coalition was formed later that year and given the name YouVote. It quickly started a website, youvote.msu.edu, to provide students with a comprehensive guide to voter registration. The website also provides information on national, state and local issues, initiatives and candidates that students will see on their ballots; its student coordinator, who is either paid or receives credit for the work as part of a graduate program, teaches a service-learning English course where students are assigned to gather information for the website. This year’s director, Tim O’Malley, is currently assigning his students to create and send questionnaires to be filled out by local candidates for City Council and city clerk; the responses to the students’ questions will be posted on the website.
YouVote, whose members include the city clerk, Michigan State University’s director of community relations and officials from student government and residence hall government, also plays a direct role in organizing voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. O’Malley says part of what makes YouVote effective is the participation of the university’s director of community relations, Ginny Haas, who has worked with YouVote since its inception and knows how to prevent the logistical problems that have arisen in the past. Having a permanent university administrator work closely with students on planning voter registration events, O’Malley says, helps in countless small ways. When YouVote brought in a secretary of state mobile office last year to register students to vote, he says, there were problems with the technology; the mobile office required an analog phone line to connect to the Internet, which YouVote organizers hadn’t prepared for. When YouVote arranged for the same trailer to come this year, Haas remembered that glitch and prepared for it ahead of time.
If Voice Your Vote worked with a coalition like YouVote, Woiwode says, it could have a much easier time getting its work done. “Institutionalizing voter turnout efforts at the University level is a brilliant idea, that would likely cut through fully half of all the hiccups and problems that came along,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. Woiwode cited the Dorm Storm, for which he had to expend considerable effort negotiating with University Housing and the Residence Halls Association for limited access to the residence halls, as an example of a situation in which an established coalition with decision-makers from those ends would have saved a great deal of time.
A close relationship with the University administration could also provide Voice Your Vote with access to University resources that are currently off-limits. For example, Voice Your Vote currently can only guess at how many University students turn out for a given election and how many are registered to vote in Ann Arbor or in their hometowns. Michigan State University’s housing office surveyed the dorm system after the 2004 presidential election to find those numbers; it found that 86 percent of students in the dorms were registered to vote – 28 percent in East Lansing and 53 percent at their home address – and 82 percent of that number voted. Michigan State’s Institute for Social Policy and Public Research found even more impressive turnout numbers among university students. Working closely with University of Michigan administrators could provide Voice Your Vote leaders with the opportunity to coordinate similar surveys on this campus.
And given the unique level of difficulty that students face voting in Ann Arbor’s local elections, the University could do a great deal of good by playing a more active role. Through a medium like the YouVote website and through the residence halls, the University could make it easier for students to find out which ward they are in, who represents them on City Council and – by allowing students to contribute to the site, like YouVote does through its service-learning class – where those representatives stand on student-related issues.
University Housing does provide some help on its own, distributing voter registration forms with orientation packets, and Jim Kosteva, the University’s director of community relations, says he is cooperating with the city of Ann Arbor to add a page to Ann Arbor’s website with information for people affiliated with the University; the page is expected to include information on voting in city elections. University President Mary Sue Coleman, Kosteva pointed out, sends an e-mail to the University community every two years reminding people to register to vote for presidential and gubernatorial elections.
But efforts beyond that, Kosteva says, are left to students’ initiative. And when it comes to local elections, the administration is strictly hands-off: “We emphasize, when there is a greater awareness on the part of the students and the public, the registration opportunities or deadlines,” Kostava says. “We don’t provide an ongoing bulletin of when the next school board election is, for example, or the next local millage for parks – There is some responsibility here on the part of voters to remain somewhat abreast of current events.”
When asked about local elections, Kosteva also emphasized the importance of the University being perceived as a neutral party. “Unless there was an election or millage that had a direct stake on the University, the University does not take a direct stance on ballot issues in local elections,” he says. “For example, the University would not take a position with the Ann Arbor City Council suggesting that they redraw their city ward maps – that’s not the role of the University of Michigan.”
That kind of initiative, Woiwode says, is something Voice Your Vote could undertake – although it is nonpartisan, it could support local policies for the sole purpose of increasing the student voice in local politics – if it had the time. Woiwode says if the University played a more active role in planning the voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, institutionalizing as many aspects of the effort as possible, Voice Your Vote would have the time to deal with long-term issues like ward maps. “If we didn’t have to retrace our steps every time,” he says, “that would make a huge difference.”
Why does Michigan State University play a more active role than the University of Michigan in student voter registration efforts? The city asked it to, for one thing. Kestenbaum, the Washtenaw county clerk, has another explanation: “Michigan State University’s administration sees the student vote as being a positive factor in winning state appropriations and so on,” Kestenbaum says. “In all kinds of large and small ways, the university actively facilitates organizing and campaigning on campus – I don’t think UM was ever as hostile to students voting as MSU was once, but it’s not interested in being helpful either.”
“One of the things that made the work of VYV so impressive was how very new it all was,” Woiwode wrote to me in an e-mail. “None of the machinery of the 2000 election was still in place, either personnel-wise or institutionally. So at each juncture, we were blazing our own path.” This is impressive indeed – but it’s also not the most efficient way to run a recurring effort like a voter registration drive. If a good portion of the work Voice Your Vote does in an election year were institutionalized, it could get done much more easily; leaders of the effort, instead of starting anew each election cycle, would be able to build upon past efforts and, spending less time hammering out logistics and guidelines, would have more time for long-term strategic planning.
More importantly, it wouldn’t need such a massive volunteer effort to get done, because it could use more of the University’s existing resources. YouVote, for example, doesn’t need to send an army of volunteers to the dorms because it has access to the RAs, who pass out registration forms and information to students in their halls. Even though Voice Your Vote may be able to get similar results in a presidential election year through sheer power in numbers and effort, it is difficult to imagine that it could mobilize such a large number of volunteers and inspire the same passion for a City Council election.
Woiwode recognizes this problem, but without more help at the University level, he struggles to find a way to solve it. For local elections, he says, it’s not hard to find hard-core student leaders – but getting a volunteer base from nonpolitical student groups like Chinese Christian Fellowship and the Chemical Engineering Society, as Voice Your Vote did last November, is next to impossible. “You didn’t have to take the extra step of explaining, ‘This is what a county commissioner is,’ ” Woiwode says. “It’s difficult to generate that sort of energy on a local level. I wish it wasn’t.”