After months of campaigning and debating, the arrival of Election Day brings with it an opportunity for Ann Arbor voters (students included) to change the political direction of the city. Ann Arbor is more than anything else a college town. Though some residents may be slow to admit it, the University and its students make up the very fabric of this city, and Ann Arbor’s storied has in many ways molded itself around the growth and development of the University. Students may only be here eight months a year, but their presence leaves a lasting and profound impact on the character of the city. As almost a third of the city’s population, the student body has the power in numbers to translate participation into real results.
Yet, students rarely vote in off-year Ann Arbor elections, not only because the state’s Motor Voter law poses a barrier, but also because students simply don’t care enough about local politics. The Voice Your Vote commission of the Michigan Student Assembly attempted to address the former problem, but a more comprehensive approach is required. Along with Voice Your Vote, the University should take an active role in encouraging registration, educating voters about local issues and making sure students find their way to the polls on Election Day.
Voice Your Vote’s attempt to mobilize students before last year’s presidential election proved an unqualified success. With an extensive and carefully organized grass roots campaign, Voice Your Vote managed to register 10,000 students and engage the political interests of countless others. While it was an impressive feat, 2004 was a presidential election – each voting-age citizen of this country had an interest to vote, regardless of location. Voice Your Vote needs to apply the same dedication and effort to registering students for local elections.
Voice Your Vote cannot be expected to operate effectively on its own. The University needs to institutionalize the commission, creating a permanent place for Voice Your Vote in the school’s administrative framework. As it is now, the commission is too volatile to be fully effective; the leadership changes from year to year as students graduate and with constant turnover, too much time is spent catching up on logistics. If the University were to take a page from Michigan State and hire a permanent staff, Voice Your Vote – with steady leadership – would be able to turn out votes on a more consistent basis.
Institutionalizing Voice Your Vote would also help bring year-round financial stability to the organization. Because Voice Your Vote was built to mobilize students for national campaigns, its chief sponsors seem to disappear during odd-numbered years. The Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, a Detroit-based grassroots coalition of nonprofits and church groups, funded most of Voice Your Vote’s 2004 efforts, but money for upcoming elections is not guaranteed.
The University has a strong interest in encouraging student participation, and by permanently integrating the Voice Your Vote commission, can greatly further its own political ends. A joint University-Voice Your Vote commission would be able to provide outreach programs to educate students on the importance of voting, the relevance of local issues and the role student voices can play in city politics. When MSU institutionalized a similar organization designed to register students and encourage participation in local elections in 2000, the number of students registered to vote in East Lansing increased significantly.
If City Council is going to heed student concerns, there will need to be a concerted effort – both on the part of students and the University – to bring students’ voices closer to the political frontlines. While more direct participation in City Council would be ideal, voting is an easy, relatively convenient way of reminding city officials that Ann Arbor is still a college town.
The Daily endorses –
Ward 2 – Stephen Rapundalo (D)
Ward 3 – Leigh Greden (D)
Ward 4 – Jim Hood (R)