Last year, a new independent redistricting committee designed a map that reignited a long-fought struggle. The map drew District 6 to include all dorms except Foster and was deemed by Councilmember Stephen Volan the “most student-heavy map ever.”
The youngest person ever elected to the council is Republican Jason Banach, who was 22 and had just received his undergraduate degree when he assumed office in 1996. Other councilmembers have served while in graduate school at IU, but in the city’s 200-year history, the city has never been represented by a full-time IU undergraduate student.
Especially in District 6, where most residents are undergraduates and there is no incumbent, the likelihood of electing an active undergraduate student to the district is higher than ever.
Two students are running for city council this year
David Wolfe Bender, an IU junior and the sole candidate running in District 6, is close to making history. Conner Wright, an IU sophomore running in District 3, faces a more crowded field. His district includes students that live in fraternity and sorority houses, rental units and the dorm Foster. Both Bender and Wright are running in the Democratic primary.
“Students are valuable to our city,” Bender said. “They are just as valuable as full-time residents.”
But critics say that students don’t vote. They’re transient, moving quickly through school with some leaving entirely after graduation. Although student turnout surged to 66% percent nationally in 2020, local elections are a different story. In the 2019 city council primary, overall voter turnout was low, with turnout ranging from a few hundred to a little over 1,000 votes cast per district.
Councilmember Stephen Volan, who has represented mostly students in District 6 since 2004, has since been redistricted and is now running for an at-large seat on the council. He said students do vote and they need representation.
“They drink the water. They ride the bus,” Volan said. “When they call 911, the ambulance comes, the fire department comes, the police come.”
Bender said something similar, mentioning the way that Bloomington’s small businesses suffer when students are not here.
“Bloomington’s economy is made possible through students,” Bender said.
Both Bender and Wright said they plan to stay in Bloomington after graduation, meaning their four-year city council terms — beginning in 2024 — won’t be interrupted if elected.
Student problems and student solutions
Students have always been underrepresented in politics, with the most glaring example being the 2020 census. Taken just two weeks after IU shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Volan said students were drastically undercounted, contributing to an on-paper decline in Bloomington’s population.
“It was a catastrophe,” Volan said.
Volan said when students are here, they often don’t know how to engage with the government and where to do it. Whether it’s the census or voting, students are faced with the choice of voting in their hometowns or at college, Volan said they should always vote where their physical body is.
Wright said whether students vote here does not matter.
“Even though students may not be voting here, they’re still residents of Bloomington,” Wright said.
Wright said a critical problem both for IU students and the city as a whole is student housing.
“More students keep coming and IU does not seem to be slowing their pace in admitting people,” Wright said.
Both Wright and Bender said more housing must be built to accommodate the demand. They indicated support for denser housing, with Bender specifically mentioning the need for denser housing surrounding campus so off-campus students who don’t have cars can walk or bike to class.
Bender said the goal is to lower the cost of housing by increasing supply. This is important, Bender said, because students are already in debt due to school.
“It shouldn’t rival housing prices in Washington D.C.,” Bender said.
Should there be a guaranteed student district in the future?
Volan authored the ordinance to create an independent redistricting commission in 2020. When the proposed map came back to the council, Volan suggested it be sent back to include the creation of a district made up of entirely IU-owned housing. He said a district like this would guarantee a student representative.
“I think it’s an opportunity lost,” Volan said.
Wright said a guaranteed student district might create issues finding students to run since it would only include IU-owned housing, which is usually freshmen. But he said he hopes his campaign can inspire other students to run.
“I hope students see what’s going on this election cycle and in the future decide to be the candidate themselves,” Wright said.
Wright said it’s scary to run for office at first, especially since students do not usually have the money or connections that other candidates do. Wright said he is not using the county party’s technology to find likely Democratic voters because data on rentals are usually not updated. Instead, he said he knocks on every door.
“At the end of the day, all of it comes down to who’s willing to put in the work,” Wright said. “If they’re not going to put in the work, then you have the upper hand.”