If you voted in last November’s election, you are likely aware of the geographic topsy-turvy that a panel of San Antonio judges imposed on Austin’s congressional districts last year. Part of a series of maps drawn for the state House, state Senate and Congress while legislators worked out a way to comply with a federal court order to increase minority representation, the congressional district lines sliced the Austin area up into five districts, two of which were not even based in the metropolitan area. In other words, the Austin portions of those districts were just a sliver of the ground their representatives had to cover. Nowhere was the tightrope more visible than in the University area, which was split over two districts (three, if you count the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin): one for the campus itself and North Campus, the other for West Campus. While the student vote is admittedly a small part of the Travis County vote, there is symbolic importance to having all of the UT area in the same congressional district; it would strengthen not only the voice of the University community, but also its solidarity. Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature had a chance to bolster us up during the special session, which was established specifically to deal with redistricting, but on Sunday, the Legislature waved through the interim congressional map with nary a change, keeping the local student voice divided between two districts flanging out into the more conservative suburbs to the north and west of the city. Now, with the future of the district boundaries uncertain, it is imperative that students take it upon themselves to encourage one another to make up for this setback through greater civic participation and political awareness.
The problem with the current configuration of districts is best illustrated by precinct results from last year’s election. In the race for president, Precinct 208, which covers the part of campus west of San Jacinto Boulevard and extends north to 29th Street, recorded 69 percent of the vote for Barack Obama and 27 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while Precinct 277, which covers much of West Campus, went 59 percent for Obama to Romney’s 37 percent. In those same precincts, the respective Democratic candidates for the U.S. House, Elaine Henderson and Candace Duval, won more than 50 percent of the vote, but lost their races because of the different political leanings of the districts’ suburban residents. While many students are not registered to vote in Austin, the University would benefit from having a single representative in Congress.
Now that the Legislature has signaled its acceptance of this situation, it behooves the student body to inspire one another to kick up about the issues that affect them most, including federal funding for higher education and visa requirements for foreign students. According to UT spokesman Gary Susswein, “One of the University’s core missions is to help develop an educated and engaged citizenry. We do this both in the classroom and by promoting an open culture on campus where there is a free exchange of ideas and opinions.” However, it will take more than an absence of barriers to keep the student voice relevant in the current political geography. Student-initiated action in the form of rallies and get-out-the-vote efforts is crucial to achieving this goal, but spreading the word about the most important issues facing the University is the most important task of all.
While we understand the logistical difficulties of getting the word out to a student body as large and diverse as UT’s, the campus’ political organizations should strive to regularly inform students, or give them the option of being regularly informed, of the debates occurring in Washington pertaining to higher education. We agree with Payton Mogford, vice president of Libertarian Longhorns, who said, “If the University is going to propose a greater political awareness for the student body, their only goal should be to educate in a factual, unbiased manner. No opinion should be extracted by students as they should be able to form their own.” Ultimately, the hard work of stirring UT students to political action falls to the students themselves. With such a clear visual representation of the fractures in UT’s political identity, it’s time the UT community took a more active role in making its voice heard.