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The politics of participation: Who gets the upper hand?

By Phreddy Wischusen
Special to the Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — The electoral dynamics and demographics of Detroit are changing.

Vote Detroit“I can tell you, as a rough estimate, there are 8,300 college educated people (living in Detroit) under the age of 35 who are not registered to vote (in Detroit). I got that from a third party media marketing company. I can’t tell you who that is, but I trust it,” says Allison Kriger, co-founder of Vote Detroit.

This statistic could be important because there are, presumably, thousands of young, mostly white people, who will soon be engaged in Detroit politics and help determine the future of the city.

Vote Detroit is a local, nonpartisan initiative aimed at raising awareness about the importance of political participation. The group is young, energetic and just launched their voter awareness initiative this year.

Kriger and her partners (twin sister Lauren Kriger and Ellen Schneider) began conversations with various civic engagement organizations to better understand current participation climate.

She wondered how many people are  paying taxes and registered to vote in Detroit. Kriger’s hunch was that the number was low because of city-imposed income tax and auto insurance.

Kriger was born and has lived most of her life in Detroit. After spending about a decade living in Lansing (at Michigan State University and  working for State Senator Buzz Thomas) and with her head in the books at Wayne State’s Law School (she has since passed the bar and works at the firm La Rene and Kriger), she finally got to take a fresh look at her hometown. She thought, “Gosh, this city has changed seemingly so much; there’s this really huge influx of people; there’s this energy now, this interest I’ve never seen in the 28 years I’ve lived here.”

“Ask all these folks, ‘Why are you here?’ They all say they want to be a part of the Detroit resurgence, they say, ‘I want to be a part of this renaissance that’s happening,’” Kriger believes full participation means changing one’s residency to Detroit.

Kriger says Vote Detroit was formed to help make people understand that being a part of the city means civic participation. It means paying taxes here. But how do you make that happen?

“How do we make people understand that politics in this city at the local level affects their everyday life?” asks Kriger.

That became the guiding mission of Vote Detroit.

Kriger continued, “You’re talking about elections in Detroit being won by 1,600 votes or 5,000 votes, and people can visualize being one of 1,600 or 5,000. Look at districts 5 and 6, and nobody is voting. These are elections that can be won by not that many votes.”

Beginning in the 2013 election cycle, the new City Charter mandates that seven city councilpersons be elected by district and two elected at large. This is in contrast to the past hundred years of voting for all councilpersons at large.

About the new system, Kriger said, “When they were forming the council districts, there was this thought that if there was a single downtown district it would be really, really powerful, which sort of doesn’t make sense because why would it be really any more powerful than any other district because it would still just have one representative?”

When asked if the new council districts are a recent invention, Kriger responded, “I’m almost positive they made new districts because there wouldn’t have been this same makeup of Downtown-Midtown-Corridor kind of against everybody else, right? That’s sort of what’s happening here. Downtown and Midtown are getting a lot of attention and the neighborhoods aren’t really seeing it — there’s a little bit of southwest that’s getting it.”

She continued, “So the idea was split downtown into two — part of Downtown, Corktown and Southwest (District 6) and on the other side you have Downtown, Midtown and New Center (District 5). So they split downtown into two thinking there would be a ton of power there for whatever reason.”

Kriger admits the way the new districts were drawn could be considered gerrymandering.

“I mean, yeah, I guess gerrymandering by definition means drawing a district with the intent of putting either a certain group at an advantage or a certain group at a disadvantage, so sure, you could say they are trying to put somebody else at an advantage,” she said.

The question then becomes: Who gets the advantage?

According to www.datadrivendetroit.org, there are 76,497 people over the age of 18 living in District 5 and 77,109 of them in District 6. These two districts encompass all the really hip neighborhoods: Corktown, Woodbridge, New Center, Hubbard Farms, Downtown and Midtown. In fact, the programs — “meds and eds” — to give money to city educators and hospital employees who buy homes specifically in Midtown, Woodbridge and New Center are still in effect.

It’s likely the overwhelming majority of the 8,300 college-educated 35 and unders living in the city with false suburban addresses live in those districts.

The districts in which Kriger says “no one is voting.” That 8,300 people with no ties to the existing community, if registered, could be the deciding factor in elections won by “1,600 or 5,000 votes.”

With a concerted effort by politically savvy commercial interests, there could be a ballot coup. With a graphically sophisticated messaging campaign, these 8,300, who would make up approximately 5 percent of the two districts they inhabit, could trade the momentary discomfort of paying redline insurance rates and their fair share of taxes for long-term political power.

However, this is not likely to happen this election cycle, but four years from now, that population will not only be larger but also much more organized.

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