Wednesday, February 24, 2021
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Why State College Should Move to Ward System, Reduced Term Lengths for Borough Council Elections

Here we are less than four months removed from a very contentious national election, one from which we could all use a breather, and what’s in the news? That’s right, who’s running for State College Mayor and Borough Council. More elections! Our primary election is May 18, less than three months from now. And we still have plenty of other school district and township candidates who have yet to announce they are running. That’s the one small downside of a democratic form of government:  if we want to be governed by ourselves we’ve got to regularly elect people to do it.

However, as I noted back in November these local and state elections could be more fiscally meaningful to you and me than the much-hyped national elections last year. State and local governments are taking more of my money than the federal government every year, and they might be taking more of yours as well. So it follows that we should give the same attention and thoughtfulness to our choices in these elections as we did to those in 2020. 

That attention and thoughtfulness to our choices should also include whether we are electing those choices fairly. In other words, have we created a system where the election outcome is guaranteed based on the demographics of the electorate? The two most commonly cited reasons for possible unfairness are discrimination and gerrymandering.

Over the course of our country’s history we have tried to improve the fairness in our elections – such as with the 15th Amendment in 1870, which was intended to eliminate racial voting discrimination, and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was intended to finish the efforts the 15th Amendment started. But the 1965 Act is still being used today in court cases – such as the Flores v. The Town of Islip decision handed down just last October which required ward-based voting rather than at-large voting for their local elections to eliminate discrimination.

The usage of “at-large” versus “ward”-based voting for local governance has been a fairness issue for decades all around the country. At-large voting is when people are elected to represent a whole population, whereas ward voting consists of multiple electoral divisions within the whole population. At-large voting has been associated with unfair discriminatory practices because majority voting populations can use it to restrict minority populations from elected positions. 

Here are the number of our Centre Region council members, supervisors and board members elected under at-large or ward-based systems:

Governing BodyAt-largeWard
State College Borough Council70
College Township Council50
Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors23
Patton Township Board of Supervisors50
Halfmoon Township Board of Supervisors50
State College Area School District Board90

As you can see, at-large voting predominates all around Happy Valley, with the exception of Ferguson Township. Now, that’s not to suggest these elections are discriminatory. The courts have established a legal framework for that determination, which involves the need to prove several preconditions. The primary one being that the presence of a racial or language minority group “is sufficiently numerous and compact to form a majority in a single-member district”. 

But in State College there is an odd case of what could best be described as reverse age discrimination. Students – young adults — constitute more than 70% of the State College’s population, yet not one Penn State undergraduate has been elected to borough council since 1973. It was an anomaly back then that was likely a convergence of several factors. The student, Dean Phillips, was a State College native (local knowledge), a member of the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council (interest in government and a known entity), a junior at Penn State (experience – not a freshman), and ran during the borough’s initiative to adopt its current home rule charter – likely the last time the borough truly actively reached out, courted and encouraged Penn State students to vote en masse.

But in the 48 years since then not a single undergraduate student or young adult (18-22 years old) has been elected to the governing body of a borough with a median age of 21.5 years. Although the ages of the current mayor and members of State College Borough Council are not publicly available, it’s safe to say all are past that median age.

Is this, therefore, a possible case of age discrimination? Generally that requires the discriminated group to be a minority so this couldn’t be discrimination, because the students are the majority. Except, are the students really a majority? Remember that on May 18, the date of this year’s primary election, Penn State residence halls will mostly be closed, spring semester will be over and what had been a numerical majority of students for the previous months will now be a numerical minority. 

If we realize that during the primary election – the only method for major party candidates to get on the general election ballot in the fall – the students are in fact a minority, then some of the other preconditions for discrimination fall into place. For example, the students are sufficiently numerous and compact to form a majority in a single-member district. And the majority, the older permanent population (we’ll call them “townies”), vote sufficiently as a bloc to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate – as evidenced by the 48-year void of undergraduate students being elected.

Granted, claiming age discrimination is a legal stretch for a law that was designed to eliminate racial discrimination. But aren’t the ever-important optics of this situation such that it’s clear even if intent isn’t there, the reality is that the results speak for themselves? No students are or have been elected. So, what should the borough do to alleviate this concern? 

First, the borough should move to adopt a ward-based system and eliminate all at-large members. This the gold standard of mitigation in electoral discrimination cases. Now, of course, those wards could still be gerrymandered such that townies could win all of them, but at least that will guarantee a little more geographic diversity than is usually present on council. It wasn’t that long ago that three council members lived within a few doors of each other.

Next would be for the borough council to do everything it can to adjust the primary voting process. If the students’ presence in Happy Valley is important enough for them to be counted in the census – so the local governments are apportioned funds to support the infrastructure needed for the students – then their vote should be important enough to have the opportunity to vote while they are still here. While the state and county handle election processes, borough council should advocating for opportunities for students to cast their ballots while they are here.

Lastly, borough council terms should be reduced from the current four years to two years. Most students are only here for four or five years, making it almost impossible to complete a term on council once elected. If a freshman is lucky enough to enroll in the fall of an even-numbered year, she or he needs to run and win in the spring primary, then win in the fall election to be seated on council in the middle of their sophomore year, forcing them to stay at college for six years to fulfill their elected borough council term. If a freshman enrolls in the fall of an odd-numbered year, add another year to that equation. That’s simply too much to ask from a campaign promise to put your first two-to-three years after graduation on hold because you were elected to borough council. 

Borough council has long talked about the students’ importance to the community, and to council’s credit now has two student representatives to Council – one each from Penn State’s University Park Undergraduate Association, and the Graduate and Professional Student Association. Although, other than having a seat at the staff table for council meetings, they appear have no real powers that the general public doesn’t have, and aren’t identified on the council’s website. 

Making the changes above would show good faith in borough council’s overall discrimination-reduction efforts and provide a more level playing field for the students to take advantage of self-governing opportunities. And since it’s likely that townies will still be the occupants of those borough council seats even after these changes, there’s no reason not to make them. That’s the upside of a democratic form of government: we get to regularly elect people to govern us.