City Desk

ANC Redistricting: To Gerrymander or not Gerrymander AU?

Are student-dominated neighborhood commission districts a way of empowering D.C.'s college students—or a way of ghettoizing them?

The question arises as the District, having tweaked its city council ward boundaries following the 2010 census, prepares to adjust its Advisory Neighborhood Commission districts, too. And, just as they are on issues unrelated to the decennial population survey, neighborhoods adjacent to campuses are grappling with tension between students and neighbors.

The latest flare-up comes in the tony part of town abutting American University. Ward 3 Redistricting Task Force Chair Jeffrey Kraskin and ANC 3D Chairman Tom Smith have floated a plan for ANC 3D that would create a student-only ANC Single Member District within 3D, with spillover going into a mixed district, reports AU's student newspaper, the Eagle:

The plan would group all of AU except for Letts, Clark and Roper Halls into ANC 3D 07, the district seat currently held by student Deon Jones.

Letts, Clark and Roper Halls would fall with Spring Valley neighborhood under ANC 3D 02, currently headed by ANC 3D Chairman Tom Smith.

Taskforce Chair Dr. Jeffrey Kraskin said all of AU would ideally fall into one district, but AU’s resident hall population is over the 2,000-person cap per district.

“It has to be done; we have to break it apart,” Kraskin said.

The Eagle finds a bit of man-on-the-street support for saturating one ANC with university representation. (One student is quoted as saying, "We’re trying to unite the campus community with the community at large, and the best way to do this is to have a guaranteed student seat.")

But on Greater Greater Washington, Evan Brown and Matt Lien, both AU students, write that the gerrymandering "blatantly under-represents and marginalizes the American University student population for solely political reasons." Just as GOP-dominated Southern legislatures have maximized Republican Congressional prospects by creating minority-dominated districts that would presumably concentrate the Democratic vote, they worry, concentrating students into just one of an ANC's districts would dilute their impact when the whole body votes.

Similarly, back in August, the Georgetown ANC 2E voted to create a second SMD just for Georgetown students. Then, ANC 2E 04 chair Jake Sticka, a sophomore at Georgetown, argued against student-only districts, writing that it "gerrymanders" them out of having a voice.

The upside of student-only ANCs is that students are essentially guaranteed a voice on the commission; surely, a student body is most likely to elect a peer as its representative. But such a policy would give students only as many voices as they have districts; in the case of Kraskin and Smith's proposal for AU, that's one voice. Were the campus split into multiple SMDs, several students could, theoretically, be elected to the ANC.

And in the future, there's one very large thing at the mercy of ANC 3D's approval: AU's campus plan. The plan proposes some serious changes, like turning a parking lot on Nebraska Avenue NW into a mixed-use development, and has been met with opposition from nearby, non-student residents in ANC3D. For neighbors wary of the university's changes, the potential for multiple AU-based commissioners—or a swath of commissioners whose constituents include students—probably isn't very appealing.

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  • David Alpert

    One important point here is that in both the Tom Smith and Georgetown (Ron Lewis) plans, the student SMDs are larger than the others and exceed the 5% above average limit.

    So not only is there a question of concentrating the student vote in 1 SMD (or 2 for Georgetown), but they then make the SMD large, which means fewer spillover people in the other, mixed district.

    It's as if a southern legislature not only created some highly concentrated Democratic districts, but made them about 7% larger in population than the nearby ones, putting more Democrats in 1 district so the others become more Republican. That's not allowed in federal redistricting, and shouldn't be here.

  • Skipper

    Purposefully creating the DC version of majority minority districts in order to dilute students' votes. Very 1960s-retro!

  • TBA

    Tom Smith represents my district. He is rabidly anti-student and anti-AU. (And it's not like AU is a crazy party school, with loud parties and raging keggers. If anything, AU's beautiful campus, arboretum, the Katzen Arts Center, shuttle busses, high-profile speakers and events open to the public, etc. bring immense value and quality of life to an otherwise uneventful, yet lovely neighborhood.)In the fall of 2010, I watched video footage of him bullying an AU undergrad who was campaigning against him. He appears as a crotchety old man with no respect for competing voices. Funnily enough, the students come as mature, civil, and interested in representing the entire community. From what I've seen, read, and heard, I believe Tom Smith to be motivated primarily by a fear that he could be unseated, and not the public good. That is not a reason to gerrymander or stifle the voices of a significant portion of an area's residents.