The student-vote myth

Local survey scapegoats students for council’s perceived flaws

It’s always valuable when citizens interact with their elected officials and let them know how they’re feeling about things. I wouldn’t want to discourage them in any way.

But polling—or the kind of survey Karen Zinniel and the group Concerned Citizens of Chico took in July and presented publicly Monday night (Oct. 5) and again at the City Council meeting Tuesday—is both an art and a science. As any professional pollster will tell you, the way questions are framed and answers solicited can strongly affect the results.

As Jim Gregg, a retired political-science professor and former director of the university’s Survey Research Center, told the council Tuesday, of all the types of polls, mail surveys such as the one the CCC took “are the most unreliable.” They’re “self-selecting,” which means the person being polled decides whether to participate. As Gregg said, “Individuals who self-select do not represent those who choose not to participate. They usually have a beef.”

That seemed the case here. Many of the questions were such as to excite a certain segment of the populace—those who showed up for Monday night’s bitch session, for example—and collectively they added up to a patent effort to indict the current City Council.

The council reacts: Tuesday night, council members accepted the survey results with equanimity, at least initially. They praised Zinniel and her group for their participation and said they would be mindful of the data they’d received.

But they were clearly miffed by the survey’s obvious bias against students, a bias that also was demonstrated by several of the speakers Tuesday night. One of the survey’s nine questions was, “Should only permanent residents be able to vote on issues facing the city?” Another asked whether council elections should be switched from November to June, when students are gone.

Then, when council members discovered that the survey had been taken in July and did not include the responses of people aged 18-24, several of them—especially Mary Flynn—took offense. “Students are a vital part of this community, and we need to consider their opinions,” Flynn said.

The constitutional issue: As Leslie Johnson, secretary of the local branch of the ACLU pointed out, court cases following passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowering the voting age to 18 clearly affirm the right of students to vote in the city where they live most of the year. And the testimony of several students Tuesday night showed that at least some of them are highly knowledgeable about the issues facing city government.

There was a kind of xenophobia at work here. It’s not new. Every few years someone or some group goes after students, scapegoating them as the cause of whatever ails Chico. Some students sometimes create problems, as the Police Department will affirm, but students don’t determine who sits on the City Council. It’s time to put that canard where it belongs—in the trash bin.