UMD students mobilized to vote in College Park after “unruly social gatherings” ordinance
Voters fill out their ballots in the Paint Branch Elementary School voting location on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback)
For over three hours in late September, Kraz Greinetz watched the College Park City Council look on as a parade of students and residents decried an ordinance that would bar “unruly social gatherings” from the city.
The ordinance’s language was too vague, students argued, and could easily be implemented in a way that discriminated against them. They said its enforcement would levy fines against an already financially-strapped college-aged population.
But after tacking on four amendments that — among other changes — adjusted the definition of a social gathering from four people to eight people, the council’s eight members unanimously voted to support it.
Greinetz, a junior government and politics major at the University of Maryland, felt the council hadn’t heard student concerns.
“They clearly have no interest in listening to any kind of feedback that doesn’t come from the incredibly small number of people that turn out for municipal elections,” he said.
So, he switched his voting registration from his hometown of San Francisco to College Park — just in time for the council’s Nov. 5 election.
And this university’s Student Government Association said he wasn’t the only one.
PJ Saumell, one of the SGA’s directors of civic engagement, said more students — especially those in Greek life — have registered to vote in College Park and expressed an interest in local politics since the ordinance passed.
So far this year, Saumell said more than 400 students have registered to vote through software run by TerpsVote, a nonpartisan voter registration advocacy group on this campus. About 100 of these students are in Greek life, Saumell said.
And while the software TerpsVote uses doesn’t track where students register, Saumell estimates that a good number of Greek life students who registered did so locally, in response to the ordinance. The majority of the Greek life registrations happened after the ordiance’s passage.
Saumell added that he received a few emails from students who mentioned the ordinance, and asked him how they could register to vote in College Park.
“The ordinance really put into perspective for a lot of students how important voting in College Park is,” he said. “Once it was passed, it became a lot more real to students.”
Under the ordinance, social gatherings of eight or more people including certain activities — such as underage drinking — are defined as nuisances. Residents found in violation, and their landlords, can be fined up to $1,000.
Students, many of them members of Greek life, turned out en masse against the ordinance on Sept. 24. They gathered in a sprawling line outside of Davis Hall, waiting to share their concerns.
Junior public policy major Rory Nolan was one of them. He said the meeting left many feeling frustrated with what they saw as a lack of transparency.
“[The city council] did try to appease some of the student concerns, but I feel like it was just so rushed and it was so obvious that they weren’t concerned at all about how students would feel about passing something,” Nolan said.
Nolan was already registered in College Park before the ordinance’s passage. He’s planning to vote in the upcoming city elections — and he said the biggest thing he’s looking for in a candidate is someone who will listen to students.
District 1 council member Kate Kennedy argued it’s not that she and other council members didn’t hear students, they just disagreed. Long-term residents vote too, she said.
Nonetheless, Kennedy applauded students for registering to vote and making their voice heard at the polls — that’s what elections are for, she said.
“Democracy right now is so important,” she said. “Voting is incredibly important and everyone should be engaged in it as much as they possibly can at every level, so I am excited to hear more engagement — that makes me happy.”
Less than 15 percent of eligible voters turned out for the city’s 2017 elections, according to city documents.
SGA President Ireland Lesley changed her own voter registration to College Park after the council passed the ordinance.
“This is a very, very easy example of a way to engage students and to say that what a city government does really does matter,” Lesley said. “Even though you’re a student and living here temporarily, the things that they do do impact you.”
The deadline to change your voter registration in the November elections passed on Oct. 8, but Lesley said students can still be involved in local politics by attending council meetings.
Before the deadline passed, Greinetz — a member of Phi Sigma Kappa — said he encouraged his fraternity brothers to change their voting registration. Though he wishes more students would have changed their registration, he said the people he spoke to seemed committed to electing fresh faces to the council.
“The city council seems to want students to bring publicity to the town, to go to the university, to spend all their money at local businesses, to pay exorbitantly high amounts to rent rooms around College Park — and then they want all their students to shut up,” he said.