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Opinion | Mapmakers must draw student seats if Madison’s City Council is to be truly representative

Opinion | Mapmakers must draw student seats if Madison’s City Council is to be truly representative

Local redistricting (copy)

Many of the Lakeshore dorms at UW-Madison, above, would be moved out of the campus-area City Council district under two maps being considered for redrawn local lines.

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Fifty-three years ago, the voters of Madison’s 8th District elected a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin History Department to the City Council. There was speculation that the election of a student who was deeply engaged with the civil rights and antiwar movements would “disrupt” city politics. And Paul Soglin did just that.

Soglin boldly represented his campus-area district, using his platform as a City Council member to highlight economic, social and racial injustice, and to upset existing practices. In so doing, he ushered in a new era of more dynamic and engaged politics for a city that had struggled to adjust to the calls of conscience that resonated so powerfully in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Within five years, Soglin was not the “student radical” outsider on the City Council. He was the mayor of a city that was in the process of transforming itself into the forward-focused metropolis that he would lead, on and off, for the better part of a half-century.

From 1968 onward, the 8th was defined as a student district, and it was not the only one. The neighboring 5th District elected 22-year-old Eugene Parks in 1969 as the first Black member of the council; and a few years later it elected Roney Sorensen, who channeled campus-area energy into the fight for decriminalization of marijuana. Downtown Madison’s 4th District also has elected its share of campus-tied candidates, including UW Law School grad and longtime council member Mike Verveer.

The tradition of undergraduate representation on the council is an important one. This is one of the reasons why Verveer and others on the council and in the community have opposed moves to shrink the size of the council — as has The Capital Times, which has long argued in favor of a larger and more representative council.

Scheming to downsize the council was rejected by the voters in the spring 2021 election, when only 16% of the electorate backed a smaller body. Yet threats to student representation continue.

The city is in the process of redrawing council districts based on data from the 2020 U.S. Census, and several of the proposed maps threaten to alter the makeup of the 8th in ways that could weaken student representation.

Ald. Juliana Bennett, a UW student who currently represents the district, worries that the proposed maps will “crack the student voice.” That’s a reference to the redistricting strategy — often employed by Republicans — of breaking up concentrated groups of voters in ways that undermine their ability to elect representatives of their choosing.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project explains the way in which politicians mangle maps in order to achieve anti-democratic results by noting: “This process is accomplished by two complementary methods: packing and cracking. ‘Packing’ occurs when many supporters of the victim party are jammed into a small number of districts, giving them a few overwhelming wins. The remaining members of the victim party are then ‘cracked,’ spread across a large number of districts, so that they consistently win just under 50 percent of the vote.”

My sense from looking at a pair of proposed maps is that, under either of them, the 8th would remain a district with a large student population. But there is no doubt that these maps would spread students over more districts, and there is a prospect that — in a low-turnout spring election — the campus community could indeed end up with less of a voice on the council.

That would be a bad result for Madison, where the student population hovers around 45,000 out of an overall population of roughly 270,000 in the new Census count. Not all undergraduate and graduate students live near the campus, or even in Madison. But if we make the reasonable assumption that most of them do, then it’s fair to argue that they should have at least two and perhaps three student representatives on the 20-member council.

The first building block for that level of fair representation should be an 8th District made up of the core campus area. It’s reasonable to say that the adjoining 4th and 5th Districts could also have student majorities — or at least pluralities.

It is also fair to say that, with the growth of the city’s overall population of 16% — up almost 37,000 people since 2010 — Madison’s council size should be increased proportionally in order to maintain the same level of representation for city residents. Under a model that seeks to accomplish that goal, the council would add at least two seats.

Increasing the council size makes sense from a democracy standpoint, as constantly packing more and more people into the same number of districts makes the council less representative with each redrawing of the maps. It also makes sense if our desire is to have a council that reflects the growing diversity of the city. And, of course, a larger council is more likely to provide an adequate level of student representation.

Even if the council size is not increased, however, Ald. Bennett is right that the 8th should be maintained as a student district.

There are no guarantees that the 8th will always elect a student as its representative, nor should we presume that Bennett or some future representative of the district will follow Soglin’s footsteps into the mayor’s office. But Madisonians who place their faith in representative democracy — and who hope to maintain the city’s dynamism — should be working to keep that possibility alive.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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