Redistricting commission shows student district in preliminary map

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Students could make up the majority of a city council district based on a preliminary map released by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The new district lines are being drawn as part of Austin’s new 10-1 plan, which will divide the city into 10 districts with one city council member from each. Currently, six city council members are voted on at-large and not drawn from specific geographic regions.

The preliminary map, released Saturday, outlines a district with a high student population, which some students say will allow for greater representation of students’ interests.

Catherine Benavidez, government senior and president of UT Votes, said the creation of a student district is an important step in getting students more involved with the community.

“I am 110 percent supportive of a student district,” Benavidez said. “It’s important to have a student district because students living in the area and going to [the] University know what issues impact us most and what ordinances would be best for our community. It would also make students interact more with the Austin community outside the University, instead of being so isolated.”

Benavidez said a student district could also help to increase student participation in voting, as long as students are aware of the existence and potential of the district. 

“Typically, the reason why people in our age group don’t vote as much as older generations is because they have a large sense of apathy and feel that their vote won’t make a difference,” Benavidez said. “[A student district] would radically change that. However, it is important to note that awareness about the district needs to be increased because if no one knows that our own student district exists, no one will know how to best utilize it.”

Ryan Rafols, a psychology sophomore and member of the commission, said he was elected to serve on the commission as a representative of students in Austin.

“Part of my goal in this whole process was to get a student district,” Rafols said. “While I couldn’t work directly with the student district coalition, I was able to help rally them together, speak to them and give them the resources they needed to make a district.”

Rafols said now that the preliminary map has been released, he expects more neighborhoods to get involved at meetings, but he does not see any major changes taking place with the lines for the student district.

“We may lose some people to other districts,” Rafols said. “We’re within the margin of 5 percent [of the goal], but we’re a little bit over so we could possibly lose a few neighborhoods.”

Craig Tounget, the commission’s executive director, said while he has heard a significant amount of support for the student-centric district, he has also heard concerns that the planned district will minimize the voices of the surrounding community.

“There were people who lived in the communities adjoining the student area that didn’t want students to be considered a protected class,” Tounget said. “They wanted the neighborhoods to have precedence over student populations. While [the district] does have a concentrated student population, it’s also a heavy district of neighborhoods, so it’s not like it was just a UT-drawn district.”

Joshua Tang, history senior and administrative director for Student Government, said he attended two commission meetings in support of the student-centric district because he feels the district will allow for representation that more accurately reflects Austin’s population.

“Students should be more involved in local Austin politics, and students have a special set of needs when it comes to local politics — both of those concerns could be addressed by creating a student district,” Tang said. “We’re not looking for special treatment. The referendum that Austin has was done so all of Austin citizens could have representation on city council. That’s the only thing students are asking for: that we have the same amount of representation as the rest of Austin.”

Tounget said the commission hopes to have a finalized version of the map ready by the first week of December.

“There are going to be four more public hearings so people can tell us what they like and don’t like about [the map],” Tounget said. “Then the commission will make the adjustments they think are necessary.”