Burlington redistricting effort focuses on Ward 8, shifting student populations

Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 6:09 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Population shifts and voting patterns in Burlington’s Ward 8, an area encompassing University Heights, will be a particular area of focus as the city council takes up new redistricting voting maps.

Where most districts in the city are drawn with straight lines along main roadways, Burlington’s Ward 8 is known to many in the city as the “salamander district” because of its shape. Burlington, in general, has a high number of renters, but Ward has a combination of large student and renter populations, making it more of a transient district than others which can impact its voter turnout.

We spoke to students at the University of Vermont who were unaware they lived in the district and haven’t paid much attention to Burlington politics. “I feel like in between classes and social life and stuff like that, to think about Burlington politics hasn’t really been more on my mind. I really wish I knew more about it, but sadly, I don’t,” said Theresa Schmus, a UVM sophomore.

“To be honest, I have not been able to pay attention to any politics since I’ve been here, but I do want to learn more about it,” said Megan Weyer, another UVM student.

“Burlington is a great place, and considering the fact that we live here it would be cool to learn more about and have that kind of opinion, so that would be nice,” said added Lauren Schellhammer, a first-year UVM student.

The Burlington City Council recently tasked an ad hoc committee with digging deeper into what residents want in new districts. Changes could involve reducing or adding councilors and changes to the ward and district system. They also got feedback in favor of changing the current Ward 8 map.

Adam Roof, chair of the Burlington Democratic Party, was the first council member elected from Ward 8 and held the seat for two terms. He says big changes are likely ahead for the ward. “I do think that Ward 8 will be a focus for folks to think about -- how we can restructure not just Ward 8 but be responsive to population changes throughout different corners of Burlington and end up in a place that looks and feels different for the entire city,” he said.

Burlington voting districts
Burlington voting districts(WCAX)

Roof says low voter turnout is also due to the fact that registered voter numbers tend to be inflated because people -- including students -- don’t unregister once they move.

However, low voter turnout has been documented nationally among 18 to 25-year-olds. In the 2021 special election, just 20% of registered voters came out, which was 10% lower than the next lowest ward, and voter turnouts fluctuate widely depending on the election.

“I understand that by redrawing the map and creating more equitable districts across the entire city should be a goal, but are we also losing focus that we need to be supporting our younger folks in their participation going forward as well,” Roof said.

While Ward 8 has its challenges, Roof says that his old constituency is a microcosm of Burlington, with its student and renter populations making up a good chunk of the city. “Conversations around voter rights or landlord accountability, our housing crisis in general, can be really understood by putting a microscope over what Ward 8 is,” he said.

The City Council is aiming to have a new map drawn for voters to weigh in on for the November 2022 election.

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