Students should not expect an outcome in their favor regarding the ongoing debate in Williamsburg over student life off campus, namely the three person rule and the new policy on noise levels. The reality of the situation is that the laws and restrictions imposed on residents are written and enforced by elected officials of the City of Williamsburg.
It is logical to assume that these elected officials are most likely to shape these laws with the interests of their constituents in mind. Even though both residents and students at the College of William and Mary comprise the local constituency, Williamsburg residents have much more influence on town politics.
This is not an issue of numbers. Persons age 18 to 24 account for 46 percent of the population of Williamsburg, and most of these are students at the College. If numbers were the only deciding factor in political pull, we would be the most important voting bloc, capable of shaping city policy much more to our liking.
We also cannot blame discriminatory policies that discourage student voting. Although these have previously existed, researchers Andrew Pate and Jesse Richman, authors of “College Students and Voting,” find that “updated data for 2006 shows that there are currently no states with effective legal barriers to college town registration and voting. All state registration barriers for college-town voting were removed in the period between 2000 and 2006. During the period from 2000 to 2006, twenty one states revised their statutes or interpretations to remove barriers to college-town voting.”
If students have the numerical strength to greatly affect city policies and there are no legal barriers in our way, why hasn’t it happened?
For one, our age group has never been one known for high voter turnout. The 2004 election had the highest voter turnout percentage since 1972, when the voting age was first lowered to 18. And even though turnout went up again last year it was still short of the 60 percent and over turnout rates achieved prior to lowering the voting age in the 1960s. And even though voter participation seems to be on the rise, the 18 to 24 demographic still lags behind.
In local politics, our demographic is even less involved. A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that “only 8% of the [local] party chairs identified young people as the most important demographic for the long-term success of their party, compared to 21% who named senior citizens.”
With this information in mind, many people would blame the apathy of our age group and urge multiple get-out-the-vote campaigns. This, however, is not my view on the situation. I believe the major reason we do not participate in politics at the local level is the fact that real local political participation requires a long term, vested interest and understanding of your community. As much as you may hear people say that college is your new home this is simply not the case.
For many students college, is a temporary, transitory period. Most of us will move on in a few years, a fact that prevents us from having the same connection to Williamsburg as residents who have lived here longer than we’ve been alive. This makes us a less invested and less committed constituency, greatly diminishing our political efficacy.
It is the nature of the democratic system to favor those with stronger opinions and interests. The residents of Williamsburg will continue to be the driving force in the crafting and implementation of city policies simply because they care more.
We will only have to abide by Williamsburg law for a few years, while they may well be affected by them for the rest of lives. This, of course, is not to say that students cannot forge a compromise on some issues but we must not delude ourselves into thinking we are on equal footing Williamsburg residents.
E-mail Ed Innace at firstname.lastname@example.org.