Editorial: Evanston City Council should redraw ward boundaries to protect NU student vote

The Daily Northwestern

When Evanston officials made plans this year to step up enforcement of a controversial housing ordinance that would negatively affect Northwestern students, the aldermen representing the area where off-campus students live were largely silent. They did not speak out against the ordinance or even attempt to find out what the enforcement plans were. NU, it seemed, had no representation in Evanston.

That’s nothing new.

For much of recent memory, NU students have been largely invisible in Evanston politics. That’s partly due to embarrassingly low student voter turnout at aldermanic and mayoral elections. But it is also due to the rarity of a genuinely pro-student advocate appearing on the ballot.

But today, city and university officials may have a historic opportunity to change that reality. Every decade, government officials redraw district lines to reflect population changes in new census data. The deadline for the next redistricting is not until 2015, but the discussion to redraw ward lines will begin this fall.

The Daily urges the Evanston City Council to redraw city ward lines to characterize NU students as a protected voting bloc, which would ensure one of the aldermanic districts be composed mostly of NU students. Specifically, we call on Ald. Jane Grover (7th) to lobby for a majority-NU ward. When Grover came before our editorial board to ask for our endorsement in 2009, she explicitly promised to do just that, and our eventual endorsement cited that as a leading reason for our support of her.

The council almost created an NU-majority district the last time it redrew ward boundaries. But the 2003 version of the council ultimately decided to split the NU student vote among three wards, the first, fifth and seventh, limiting the political power of NU students. Since then, NU students have been unable to count on a strong student advocate on the council.

Protecting the NU voting bloc will give students the voice they deserve in Evanston politics. Students often feel the full impact of Council decisions related to issues like parking costs and off-campus housing, and their needs should be better represented at council meetings. Imagine if a strong NU advocate, or even an NU student, owned a voting seat on the council. Students would know they could always go to that person to lobby for their interests in their government.

In the past, city officials have been wary of protecting the student voting bloc because students rarely vote in elections and seem apathetic of Evanston politics. That’s understandable, but perhaps this is due to a feeling of powerlessness at the hands of a city council without a clear student advocate. It’s hard to tell if redistricting and a pro-NU aldermanic candidate will be enough to spark student interest in local politics, but it would be a step in the right direction. City officials would be showing that they value the voice of students in city decisions.

Redistricting will only benefit students if they turn out robustly in elections. If they don’t, the alderman representing NU’s protected ward would not need to be completely pro-student.

We view this as an move that will not only benefit the University, but would make our city government more representative. NU, after all, is the biggest employer in the city.

The Daily asks the council to consider that potential benefit. Specifically, we ask Ald. Grover: please fulfill your promise.