Allen: Don’t Rock the Vote

Instead of running for elected offices, Dartmouth students should form coalitions with Hanover residents to meet their political goals.

by Spencer Allen | 1/5/23 4:00am

It’s no secret that political ambitions run high among Dartmouth students. Take, for example, the six students who have run for or served in elected offices representing Hanover in my time here: Garrett Muscatel ’20, who represented Hanover and Lyme in the New Hampshire State House of Representatives in 2019 and 2020; Riley Gordon ’22 and Victoria Xiao ’22, both of whom ran for state representative in 2020, though Xiao dropped out of the race before the primary; Miles Brown ’23 and Nicolás Macri ’24, both of whom ran for the same office in 2022; and David Millman ’23, who ran for Hanover Town Selectboard in 2021.

Now, these students all had great reasons to run for office. In previous coverage, The Dartmouth reported that the aforementioned candidates ran on issues such as immigration, voting rights for college students, anti-Asian discrimination, student housing, mental health and climate change — all of which have captured the attention of the student body and portions of the Hanover electorate at large in recent years. In addition, many Dartmouth students are eligible to serve in elected office, provided that they have lived in New Hampshire for two years and are U.S. citizens and adults.

Despite this, students have found very little success in representing Hanover. Brown, Gordon, Macri and Millman all lost their elections. Meanwhile, Muscatel resigned several months before the end of his term following questions about his residency status during the pandemic. With such historically low prospects, is it really worth it for students to run for office?

Strategically, no.

I served as an election worker during the 2022 primary and general elections, where I met more Hanover residents than I had in the previous three years I’ve lived in Hanover. From overhearing snippets of conversations and chatting with my fellow election officials off the clock, I got the general sense that many non-student residents of Hanover do not trust Dartmouth students to effectively represent them.

And that makes complete sense. Dartmouth students can very easily be great representatives of our 4,000 undergraduates — which, as I’ve noted in another article, is about one-third of all Hanover residents. When choosing between a two-year resident of town who appeals to student residents — and will likely leave after their term — as compared to a two-decade resident who understands the concerns of non-student residents and will likely grow incumbent in the position, it makes sense that most residents would choose the latter.

Student candidates also have to overcome legitimate concerns about their fitness to serve. Notwithstanding the frivolous anti-student sentiments held by some town residents, previous student representatives in local and state office have less than perfect histories. Vanessa Sievers ’10 was elected Grafton County treasurer in 2008 only to face calls for her to resign after she missed three consecutive meetings, and Michael Wopinski ’15 was elected as county register of probate following his fraternity’s write-in campaign in his favor. And let’s not forget Muscatel, who flip-flopped on whether he would resign upon his graduation or finish out his term before being effectively pressured out of the state house. Collectively, these failed tenures in office have left Hanover residents “skeptic[al] toward student candidates.”

Simply put, it is not in students’ strategic interests for our fellow students to run for elected office. When gaining political power through running for elected office is doomed to fail, what alternatives are available for students in Hanover?

Above all else, students and non-students alike need to come to the table and work together to build a strong pro-Hanover coalition. This is a point I first made shortly after Millman lost his election for town selectboard back in 2021, and we’ve already made progress on this point. Following that defeat, Millman worked with the town and student body to pass an article at the 2022 town meeting to create a new zoning district in Hanover with expanded housing density. 

Coalition-building between student and non-student residents would have enormous benefits. Of course, students’ calls for change on a myriad of issues would have a strong backing to succeed. But more than that, engaging in constructive dialogue as residents of Hanover — the town we all call home — would bring with it a sense of togetherness in the community that would benefit everyone. Tensions between students and the rest of the community would likely ease, and students may actually have a decent shot at winning a race in town.

As a result of community building, this would give students a shot at advocating for a student presence on the selectboard, whose policies and decisions have a heavy weight on college affairs. This electoral reform could take shape by splitting Hanover into electoral districts and having Dartmouth be its own district. Or, we could install an existing student representative — say, the student body president — as a permanent member of the selectboard, where they could then advocate on behalf of all students.

Students deserve to have their voices heard at all levels of government, but gaining that voice must be done strategically so as to actually get that representation. Instead of wasting time and money on campaigns that are destined to fail, students should prioritize setting the stage for long-term successes by helping build coalitions with town residents. This sort of strategic reprioritization of goals will benefit all of Hanover moving forward.

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