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Students Pass on Local Elections

May 18, 2012

By Ryan Murphy
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The student vote is an elusive, almost mythical thing. When students vote en masse, they can be a potent force, as Barack Obama saw in 2008. But it’s rare for students to go to the polls in large numbers, especially for state and local elections.

“I think most students are pretty distracted from politics by their schoolwork,” said Daniel Namkoong, a rising senior at Virginia Commonwealth University and a senator in VCU’s Student Government Association. “Their life goals are more important to them than what goes on at the Capitol.”

Those goals may be even more important than what goes on on the students’ own campus. At VCU, of the approximately 32,000 students, just 956 voted in the SGA elections this spring.

Student turnout in state legislative elections and Richmond city elections is also paltry.

“I feel like a lot of people are just apathetic about local government because they don’t think it does a lot,” Namkoong said.

Tom Kramer of Virginia21, an advocacy group that represents young voters, says apathy isn’t the only factor that discourages students from voting in races for the General Assembly.

“Sixty-three percent of the Virginia House of Delegates in the last election and 35 percent of the Virginia Senate was uncontested. That’s a pretty good reason why you’re not going to vote,” Kramer said. “It’s like, ‘Why? Why would I vote? My opinion’s not going to sway one way or the other.’ ”

Local elections in the city of Richmond, where VCU’s Monroe Park Campus and Medical College of Virginia are located, also frequently lack competition. Last year, three of the nine City Council races involved just one candidate.

Students may be further discouraged by how student dormitories on the Monroe Park Campus are divided among council districts – preventing a critical mass of students from flexing their power in one district.

Seven VCU dormitories, with almost 3,300 students combined, lie in the 2nd District, on the north side of Monroe Park. They include Johnson, Rhodes and Brandt residence halls, as well as a facility that will open in August at 835 W. Grace St.

To the south of the park, the three buildings that make up the Gladding Residence Center (with more than 1,000 students) fall in the 5th District.

And the 413-person dorm at 301 W. Cary St., east of Belvidere Street, is in the 6th District (as are the two residential facilities on the Medical College of Virginia campus).

If the 4,700 residents of the Monroe Park dorms were in the same district, they would represent a formidable force. Contested races in a council district typically draw fewer than 10,000 votes.

Namkoong can’t see why district lines would be drawn this way. He thinks the districts’ configuration may dilute what power students could have as a voting bloc in council elections.

“I don’t really know what the purpose would be,” he said, puzzling over the map showing the bisection of Virginia’s largest public university’s main campus. “You’re just losing some of the voices, because they’re going to be overshadowed by all these other populations.”

Redistricting and the Student Population

Last year, the Richmond City Council redrew council districts, adjusting them for population changes reflected in the 2010 census.

Because of Richmond’s history of discriminating against African-Americans, the city falls under the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965. That requires the city to submit its redistricting plans to the U.S. Justice Department, which must ensure that the redrawn lines won’t negatively impact black voters.

In late March, the department approved Richmond’s plans; the new districts took effect immediately.

The major changes involved the 2nd District. Over the past decade, it experienced a population boom because of growing enrollment at VCU, said City Councilman Charles Samuels, who represents that district.

“I think students have a huge impact on the population increase,” Samuels said. “I think you see that by the fact that companies from outside of Virginia see Richmond as a great place to build dormitory-style apartments.”

He points to developments like the recently constructed 8½ Canal Street development, a 540-resident building that bills itself as “the next level of student housing.”

Redistricting is done every decade to ensure that each district has about the same number of residents. Because of population growth around VCU, a chunk of Monroe Ward was moved from the 2nd District to the 6th District. The relocated area included 8½ Canal (even though the building is so new that no one was living there when the 2010 census was taken).

Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of the 6th District opposed shifting areas where students live from one district to another.

“I objected to it because I felt that we were violating some of the principles that we used to draw boundaries throughout the entire process,” Robertson said. “One of our objectives was not to split neighborhoods … I felt this was a split of the student body of VCU.”

But the shift accomplished the objective of almost equalizing council district populations – so that each council member represents about the same number of constituents.

By moving the area into the 6th District, the variation in population among Richmond’s proposed districts dropped substantially – by between 1 and 1½ percent, Samuels said. The Justice Department guidelines state that the standard deviation among voting districts must be less than 10 percent, and an effort must be made to get as close as possible to zero percent deviation.

“There were cases I looked up where even though it was under 10 percent, it was still rejected because they could have done more,” Samuels said. “I was like ‘I don’t really want to turn this into a situation where we could have done more and get egg on our face.’ ”

Shifting part of the 2nd District to the 6th District had no significant impact on the 6th District’s racial makeup, Samuels said. He said it made sense to make this change to help ensure Justice Department approval of the city’s redistricting plan.

Councilman Marty Jewell of Richmond’s 5th District has a different perspective on the decision to move the area containing 8½ Canal from the 2nd District to the 6th. He said Samuel and Robertson wrangled over the issue.

“The redistricting kind of got held up between the two of them fighting over who did not want that facility in their district, because they didn’t want to have to wonder whether they could count on those kids voting for them or the other guy,” Jewell said.

“Politicians can almost pick their voters, as opposed to the voters picking the politicians, and a lot of that gets done with redistricting.”

Jewell worked closely with students during the 2008 city elections. The northernmost part of the 5th District contains the south Fan, Oregon Hill and the southern half of the Monroe Park campus – neighborhoods with high concentrations of students. He said that those students helped him win re-election four years ago and that he expects their support again this fall.

But legally, under the Voting Rights Act, there’s nothing wrong with splitting the student population among voting districts, Jewell said.

“Students aren’t a protected class,” he said. While the law forbids diluting the power of minority voters, that doesn’t apply to students.

Samuels said council members considered consolidating densely populated student residential areas into one district. But that was impossible because of constraints on population deviations and racial composition, he said.

Besides ceding territory to the 6th District, Samuels’ 2nd District also handed off two neighborhoods to the 3rd District: Gilpin Court, the largest public housing development on the East Coast, and New Town West, a neighborhood on the western edge of the Virginia Union University campus.

The 3rd District has a majority of African-Americans, and that must be preserved under the Voting Rights Act. After losing about 1,400 African-American voters in the 2010 census, the district needed to correct its racial makeup without impacting other minority-majority districts.

The 6th District is heavily African-American, but moving black voters out of that district would mean negatively impacting their voice in the 6th. So the African-American voters had to come from the 2nd. These relocations, especially involving New Town West, moved even more college students out of the 2nd District.

Dispersed or Concentrated: Which Is Better?

Besides 11 dormitories on the Monroe Park Campus, VCU has two on its Medical College of Virginia campus. MCV is 13 blocks east of Monroe Park and squarely in the 6th District.

Moreover, many college students live in private housing in the historic Fan neighborhood, close to VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. Most of the Fan lies in the 2nd District, although the southernmost portion falls in the 5th.

And VCU isn’t the only university in the city, of course. The University of Richmond, on the city’s western edge, is in the 1st District, and Virginia Union University is in the 3rd. The result: Hefty student populations are divvied among five of Richmond’s nine City Council districts – the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th.

So is the student vote hopelessly diluted? Not necessarily. Samuels said students might have even more impact under the current configuration.

“I think it’s one of those things where some people subscribe to the fact that you have to condense students into one area to get them to come out and vote all at once,” Samuels said.

“There’s another argument that said that at this point, there’s so many students, they’d say that you can get multiple people paying attention to students, which is better for them and the issues they’re facing.”

Kramer, the executive director of Virginia21, agrees.

“I think that if students could get organized …, they could have a bigger impact on the process by being spread out in more districts because so few people participate,” Kramer said. “The bottom line is that from a sheer voting perspective, elections are won and lost by just a handful of votes.”

Namkoong, the student government leader at VCU, finds it difficult to believe that dispersing students among several districts would give them more of a voice. After all, few students participate in the voting process now.

“Each of these representatives has to choose what’s at the top of their list,” Namkoong said. “And if they can tackle one issue, they’re probably going to tackle something that’s more for the long-term residents – not as much for students.”

For their part, City Council members say they do listen to students – along with other constituents.

“I have the largest concentration of poverty in my district, so it’s only natural that I spend a significant amount of my time focusing on what services are needed specifically for people of poverty,” Robertson said.

“But that certainly does not mean that I spend the majority of my time focused on that one population because I respect the fact that other people I have in the district require the same level of representation.”

Samuels echoed that sentiment.

“I think whenever you’re in an office that represents other people, you really have to listen to what everybody wants and find a consensus,” he said.

With college students, that can be a challenge, Samuels noted. He said he rarely hears from students about issues they want addressed by City Council.

Related story:

W&M Student Elected to City Council

On the Web

The State Board of Elections has posted general information about how to register to vote. The board also has voter registration advice especially for college students.

To register to vote in the city of Richmond, see the General Registrar’s Office.

Here are detailed maps of the Richmond City Council districts.

An overview map showing how many college students reside in each district is at http://tinyurl.com/students-districts

Virginia21, an advocacy group for college students and other young people, is at www.virginia21.org

This article was published by such CNS subscribers as The Commonwealth Times.