Students at the University of Maryland--some of them spurred to register to vote by recent zoning action that bans new fraternity and sorority houses--are amassing potential for political power in College Park.
Later this month, a nine-member city redistricting commission, including two students, and the City Council will decide whether the students get their own council district as part of a court-ordered redistricting plan.
College Park's registration books were cleared by order of the Maryland Court of Appeals in February, the result of a challenge of the registration system, and voters were required to re-register. In an aggressive voter drive by the city between February and May, 4,126 residents registered, including 666 students or 16.1 percent.
Before the registration books were cleared, 443--15.6 percent--of the city's 2,841 registered voters were students.
Each of the city's eight council districts is set up to include about 12.6 percent of the registered electorate, giving the students, at least theoretically, an opportunity to control their own district.
College Park's population is 23,614, with 20,541 age 18 and over. The university has an enrollment of 37,000, with about 9,100 persons living on campus, 1,750 of them in fraternity and sorority houses. More than half of the student registrants came from the Greek organizations. Individuals can register to vote at age 18.
Drury Bagwell, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at Maryland and administrator in charge of the Greek system, said a major factor in the strong registration effort was a county zoning bill passed this spring that effectively prohibits Greek groups from moving into new houses.
Mike Canning, campus Student Government Association president and a member of the College Park Redistricting Commission, agreed. "We had a fair voter registration turnout down there," he said.
Several fraternities directly affected by the bill, which originated in the College Park City Council and was later approved by the Prince George's County Council, took a large role in the registration drive, Canning added.
The new-found student political power comes only six months after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by two Maryland students that would have invalidated the city's redistricting plan.
The suit, brought on behalf of two students by the Prince George's County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, contended that the College Park plan to use registered voters as the basis for redistricting discriminated against eligible but unregistered students by diluting student voting power.
The Supreme Court refusal, which students regarded as a setback and city residents and officials hailed as a victory, paved the way for the city's current redistricting process, which is expected to be finished by the end of the month.
"We turned the Supreme Court decision into a positive move," Canning said. "Students, especially informed students, realized they had to register to be counted, and they did.
"I'm convinced you can only have a dialogue when you speak as equals," Canning continued, defending the idea of a student-dominated district. "It would crystallize a lot of problems between residents and students."
When the city holds its municipal elections in November, Canning said, security, housing standards and the relationship between students who live in the city and long-term residents would be the most important campaign issues for students.
"If we get a district, we are going to work very hard to register more students to have an effect on the mayoral race," Canning said.
Alvin Kushner, who was elected mayor in 1981, has not announced whether he will seek reelection in the fall.
But no one expects a drastic shift in city council policies if a student district is created and a student is elected. "I'm not expecting any big gains the first year," Canning said.
Even City Council member Chester Joy, who sent a letter to constituents shortly before the May 14 registration deadline urging them to register so students would not control the city government, said he supports a student-controlled district.
"I think permanent residents would like someone to talk to in the city government structure," Joy said. "If students are generating that much interest, they should get a district."
But all obstacles to student representation on the City Council have not been removed. The city still has a minimum age of 25 for council members, and Canning says that age must be lowered if a student is to represent his peers.
David Nisbett, the attorney who handled the ACLU and student cases against the redistricting plan, said some students who tried to register were denied the right.
He said he has received two complaints charging registration officials with "attempts to intimidate and deter students from registering."
Nisbett said he would sit down with city officials to discuss the charges, and "if the allegations are true, I would say it doesn't show a good faith effort" to register students as required by the Court of Appeals ruling.
Because of a series of court challenges to the city's voter registration system, City Council districts have not been redrawn since 1967.
The Court of Appeals rejected College Park's 1975 redistricting plan and ordered the city to come up with a new one, which it did in 1979. Since then, the ACLU and student challenges had held up any action until the Supreme Court decision in January.