Redistricting hurts students’ clout

Students would have greater influence if the campus area was condensed into one ward.

Christopher Meyer

 

The Minneapolis Charter Commission is in the final stages of redistricting Minneapolis into new wards. The Commission is set to take a final vote on the map March 26. As it stands, the new map splits the University District between four wards. This four-way split dilutes students’ influence in city government. The Commission should revise the map to consolidate the District compactly into as few wards as possible.

The “University District” refers to the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota and the four neighborhoods that are immediately adjacent to it: Cedar-Riverside, Prospect Park, Southeast Como and Marcy-Holmes. In redistricting parlance, the District forms a natural “community of interest” because the University community shares many unique interests that come with a large student population. Furthermore, the District has a unique status because the area is represented by the University District Alliance and because there are city policies that only apply within the district.

One of the positive changes in the city redistricting map is the creation of a “minority opportunity” district in Ward 6. The map accomplishes this by removing portions of the Cedar-Riverside and Seward neighborhoods from Ward 2 and placing them in Ward 6. The resulting district would be 34 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic.

However, this shift could have been done more sensibly by just moving the entirety of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood into Ward 6, rather than only a portion of it and then making the rest of the University District into a single ward. The total population of the University District minus Cedar-Riverside is almost exactly the population size that each ward must try to meet, so it could easily be a ward of its own.

Instead, the current map puts the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood in Ward 3, puts the University campus and Prospect Park in Ward 2, splits Southeast Como between Wards 1 and 2 and splits Cedar-Riverside between Wards 2 and 6.

This has two principal disadvantages for students. First, it dilutes students’ influence. Second, it makes it more challenging to pursue changes that affect the whole University District. To those unfamiliar with the consequences of redistricting, it might not be clear why splitting the University District disadvantages students. After all, isn’t it a good thing to have more people representing your constituency?

The problem is that students have an extremely low voter turnout. In the most recent municipal election, student-dominated precincts had turnout rates of 2 to 4 percent. If students were concentrated in one ward, they would form a substantial voting bloc, but when they are split, their influence is severely diminished.

The second problem is that a four-way split makes it more challenging to change policies that affect the whole University District. This is because the City Council has an unofficial but long-held practice of deferring local decisions to whichever councilmember represents the affected area. For instance, if you’d like to see a new bike lane installed, you usually only need to persuade the councilmember who represents the ward where the lane is located. If the bike lane extends into two wards, however, you’ll typically need to get both councilmembers on board.

If the University District is split into four wards, there will be four councilmembers to contend with. If the District were consolidated, we’d only need to work with one or two and they would be more likely to be friendly to students’ interests.