Nomaan Merchant

By Nomaan Merchant

Most students could care less about bilingual education or stuff falling from the Evanston Civic Center’s roof, and local politicians don’t expect anything different in today’s elections.Local elections are taking place today in polling places throughout Evanston, including several locations on campus.

Three spots are open on both of Evanston’s public school boards, and two referenda on the future of the city’s Civic Center are on the ballot.

For months, activists have been passing out flyers and holding town hall meetings, campaigning in every part of Evanston – except at Northwestern.

The advocacy group Friends of the Civic Center, the candidates running for school board and pretty much everyone living outside of campus are counting on the continued apathy of NU students about greater Evanston.

The city doesn’t keep records of how many students comprise Evanston’s about 45,000 voters, but in last November’s state and national elections, only six percent of 3,723 voters registered for the three on-campus polling places cast ballots. (These precincts include parts of downtown as well as campus.)

Just one person voted at Patten Gym during elections the previous March, an election judge at Patten told The Daily at the time.

Students aren’t always insignificant in city elections, however, as Ald. Cheryl Wollin (1st) can attest. Wollin won her spot on the City Council in 2005 thanks to the help of student voters and volunteers. She won the First Ward, which includes most South Campus dorms, by about 90 votes. That’s about two floors of 1835 Hinman.

Wollin attributed her victory at the time to being able to understand students’ needs better than her opponent, Judy Fiske. Fiske, in turn, mounted a lawsuit alleging Wollin conspired with residential colleges to give housing points to students who voted in the election. The lawsuit was dismissed for good last August.

A few hundred student voters today could make the difference in a closely contested race on either school board. Marianne Kountoures, one of three candidates to win election to the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board in 2003, beat the fourth-place finisher by just over 200 votes. The margin between the winner of the third spot and the first runner-upon each board could be even less this year.

Student votes could also change the outcome of two non-binding referenda on today’s ballot. Friends of the Civic Center collected enough signatures to put a question on the ballot to ask voters whether the city should continue to reside in the existing building at 2100 Ridge Ave. In response, the City Council, which favors moving to a new site and selling the current building to developers, added a non-binding question asking if the city should fund the Civic Center’s rehabilitation with at least $31 million in bonds. Supporters for keeping the building say the city’s figure is inflated.

Both the school board elections and the referenda will have important consequences for Evanston, but NU students have been absent from this decision-making process.

The referenda on today’s ballot will impact everyone in Evanston, including students. Extra expenses for a new Civic Center could result in more cuts to services used by students, such as the free HIV screenings that will end in June to balance this year’s budget.

And although the school boards will have no real impact on the vast majority of students, they are an important part of Evanston and deserve everyone’s consideration.

Students have been written off by much of Evanston as rich kids who have never heard of property tax. But NU has served as an important voting bloc before. And although it’s admittedly unlikely, students have the potential to do it again.

City editor Nomaan Merchant is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]