The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council and Town Manager on October 23, 2021
I enthusiastically support the Districting Committee’s recommended new districts for Amherst. Of particular interest is the creative effort to diffuse the student population across the five proposed districts.
I was surprised and perplexed to read about two councilors objecting to the plan’s attempt to give all districts a share of the student populations, arguing that it dilutes and weakens the voting power of students. It’s time for us to have a conversation about students and voting in Amherst. Students make up something like half of our population – it is notable that it isn’t clear exactly how much of our population is students, residents who live here for a few years and then move on. Students are the backbone of much of our local economy. They live off-campus in many of our neighborhoods, and profitable student housing is pushing up family home prices to levels families can’t afford.
I argue that students are not a disenfranchised group that wants to participate in Amherst matters but has been shut out. Students understandably are not very interested in Amherst politics. Why would they be? The issues the rest of us vote on don’t affect them. They are here briefly, passing through on their way from childhood homes to their next chapter.
For the last 30+ years I and others have spent many weekends in vain knocking on student doors, posting voter engagement and campaign notices in dormitory toilet stalls, tabling at the Campus Center and leafleting apartment student complexes in support of a variety of issues going back to the early ‘90s and various override campaigns I chaired. We learned the hard way, in the 1990’s and since, that students aren’t engaged in override campaigns that will help our schools. As hard as many of us have tried, I now think it is naïve to expect students – other than students with families, who are mostly graduate students often from other countries – to care about our schools, libraries, zoning, and electing local leaders. Why would they care about the civic matters of a town they are passing through?
I was a very politically engaged Brandeis undergraduate but never voted in a Waltham election. I too was passing through.
One memorable time students showed up to vote for a local Amherst issue was two decades ago when Anne Awad ran for the Select Board on a pro-marijuana platform. The students came out for that, and Anne was elected. But the schools and libraries? Nope! College students have their own excellent schools and libraries on campus. An exception is students with families, particularly foreign students who frequent our libraries – but many of them are not voters.
The excellent report of the Districting Advisory Committee has divided the population into 10 precincts combined into 5 districts. Notice how the districts that still have a disproportionate share of students – Districts One and Four – have the lowest percentages of active voters.
As a District One voter, I am grateful that the proposed new District One has slightly fewer student dorms and slightly more neighborhoods, although the majority of voters in District One are still students. We have ten student apartment complexes, and when North Village is rebuilt we will have eleven. It’s worth repeating: the majority of eligible voters who live in the proposed new District One are students and if they want to influence town elections, they can organize and do that.
It’s time to have a different conversation about students and how to maintain our Town’s core vibrancy in light of the fact that about half of our population is passing through on the way to the rest of their lives somewhere else. We wish them well and hope their time in Amherst was productive.
If we really want to increase student participation in voting, I suggest we petition the State legislature to allow our high school students aged 16 and older to vote in local elections. This would enable our kids to experience voting on local matters that they care about and understand. And it would give them the experience of voting so when they move on they might get involved in local elections wherever they are, even if they are just passing through. If they can drive, shouldn’t they be able to vote?
Meg Gage is the now-retired founding director of the Peace Development Fund and the Proteus Fund, national organizations based in Amherst that organize within philanthropy to advance campaigns related to peace, human rights, and democracy. She is a graduate of ARHS and taught at the high school. She served on the recent Charter Commission and is currently the chair of the Participatory Budgeting Commission and on the Planning Team of the District One Neighborhood Association (DONA).