Registering voters only first step for change in Williamsburg

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April 8, 2008

3:29 AM

Last week, I attended a neighborhood meet-and-greet for an incumbent on Williamsburg City Council. I was the only student. During the question-and-answer session, one of the locals asked tautly about “the new political reality in Williamsburg.”

He was referring to the thousand-plus College students who had newly gained the right to vote, and who may soon oust the incumbent candidate sitting in front of him. Though widely respected as an effective and intelligent representative among his non-student constituents, his positions, such as maintaining the infamous three-person rule, may become his political death knell.

Registering students, though important, is only the first of four steps to affecting change in the City Council. The second is educating the new voters. What do the candidates stand for? What issues should voters consider?

Pledging to abolish the divisive, unethical three-person rule should be a must for any candidate, but the amorphous promise to recruit “student-friendly businesses” remains unlikely to be realized, given economic considerations like the sky-high real estate market in Williamsburg and the already present glut of outlets like Aromas and the delis.

The third step is finding a political middle ground for student and non-student voters. Much of this relies on the education mentioned in step two. Non-student voters must understand where we are coming from if we are ever to forge a united Williamsburg. Most non-students I speak to are shocked to learn that 38 students were forced out of their homes last spring for violating the three-person rule, and they become downright angry when I explain most were responsible neighbors without noise or parking violations.

Most also don’t know that for years, students were denied the right to vote for reasons as arbitrary and transparent as having non-local cell phone numbers.

Conversely, students need to understand that we still share Williamsburg with the large retiree and tourism populations. Asking City Council to abolish the police department, open 10 bars off campus, and turn Williamsburg into Greenwich Village is simply not realistic.

The fourth and final step is getting voters to the polls May 6. But, if voters are educated on the issues, the candidates and the best solutions for closing the student and non-student divide, then this will come naturally.

This is not to discount that first step, registering to vote. I myself, after spending the week telling students about the importance of registering in Williamsburg, drove down to Charlotte, where I write from now, to tell Carolinians about the importance of registering for the upcoming Democratic Primary.

While I might otherwise be with friends or outside enjoying the weather, instead I am working in shopping malls and bus depots to register voters, to help shepherd people blessed with the franchise but, in all their lives, never interested enough to use it, and I am reminded that democracy is not a given.

Self-evident though democracy may be, it will never be self-producing. No one will hand you democracy. Even if you are lucky enough to be a student at the College, where selfless and conscientious citizens like Zach Pilchen ’09 and Valerie Hopkins ’09, like Gary Shelly ’72 and Matt Beato ’09, earn you democracy by their own sweat, no individual makes a democracy. Even the greatest leader or wisest orator is nothing while alone in our system, which, for good or ill, stands and falls with the leadership not of the one, but of the many.

Democracy is not some shining institution, some Athenian marble figure that can weather any storm and will always exist without maintenance. It is a tool, a means to the end of a better, freer and more equal society, and, like any tool, if unused it will rust.
You may think, “I am just one person.” You may concede, “I’ve never been interested in politics.” You may even believe, “it doesn’t concern me.” But your voter registration card holds the power to radically improve the lives of College students present and future, and the power to help others is a moral compulsion relevant to us all.

After the neighborhood meet-and-greet, the incumbent City Coucilman, Paul Freiling ’83, approached me to ask if we could meet for coffee. He told me he reads The Flat Hat, was searching for a way to connect with student voters and wanted to discuss student concerns with me.

None of this would have happened without massive student registration. But, unless students complete the process of democratic reform, his interests will remain aligned with student interests only until May.

It may be up to him to enact the reforms necessary to heal a divided Williamsburg, but it is up to us to give him that mandate and hold him accountable.

Max Fisher is a senior at the College.

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