They Won't Storm the Bastille


For years there has been a policy at 362 Green Street--the offices of the Cambridge Election Commission--of refusing to register non-resident students. This was true particularly after the radicalism of the '60s, when politicians were fearful of the students' revolutionary zeal. Asked in 1971 why students shouldn't be allowed to register, the head of the election commission replied flatly, "Why, we are in a place where the students would take over."

Political wisdom had it that if registration requirements were slackened to allow students to vote in Cambridge, the floodgates would open and thousands upon thousands of students would rush through and seize control of the Cambridge government. It would be only a matter of time before they stormed the Bastille through the ballot.

A few court decisions barring residency requirements for voters and a new registration law have put this piece of political wisdom to a test. Under the new law, students may register to vote here simply by filling out a form. But despite bullhorns, leaflets, and sign-up tables all over the place, the results--like the prospects of a student take-over--have been disappointing, and certainly nothing for Cambridge power brokers to lose sleep over.

Students make up about 20,000 of Cambridge's total population of 105,000, but only 2500 to 3000 students affiliated with either Harvard, MIT or Lesley have bothered to register; they make up only 6 per cent of the voting population.

Where students have been able to "take over" a city government, as in the 1971 election of student radicals in Berkeley that provoked so much anxiety in Cambridge that year, the conditions have been quite different from those existing here. Before the Berkeley election, 10,000 new voters, mostly students, were added to the rolls. The atmosphere on campus, still charged with anti-Vietnam sentiments, was much more highly charged politically compared with the disinterested attitude that pervades Harvard.

After the success of Berkeley's radical students, a Cambridge City Council candidate took out an ad before the Cambridge elections cautioning the city's residents, "Could Cambridge be another Berkeley [sic]? Don't wait to find out! Restore Cambridge and its government to its residents, not its visitors." That candidate may have had something to fear from a student bloc like that one four years ago in Berkeley; he has little to fear, however, from the student vote today in Cambridge. Students here, for reasons that extend far beyond voting restrictions, have never been a major force in this city's political process, except possibly through their disruption of that process during the heyday of radical activity in the '60s.

The disinterest on the part of Cambridge-area students in the course of the city's politics can be traced to students' aloofness from the surrounding community. Particularly for Harvard students, Cambridge doesn't seem to extend beyond Harvard Square. The town-gown dichotomy creates little similarity of interest between students and the Cambridge populace. Most students live in Harvard-owned dorms and have no understanding of the rent control problem that affects 80 per cent of Cambridge residents. On the issues that do seem to affect students--like the Environmental Protection Agency's parking regulations--the students are opposed to residents, and, as a tiny minority, are unable to affect the situation.

In a city heavily dominated by working-class ethnic neighborhoods, Harvard students, increasingly involved in the smaller, more college-oriented issues that affect them personally rather than the larger one current five or six years ago, seem incapable of having an impact. And as long as local students remained uninformed about Cambridge politics and feel more like transients than residents, it is not surprising that they will show little desire to vote here. Since most Harvard students come from areas other than Cambridge or even Massachusetts, it is natural that they should choose to vote in the area where their interests--and possibly their political aspirations--are more permanently grounded.

The new voter registration law has undoubtedly opened the way to a larger student vote. Since the enactment of the law, the number of student voters has climbed to 2500 or 3000 from about half that. But unlike Berkeley, Amherst, or Madison, Wisc., where a student was elected mayor, Cambridge is a "real" city, where the vast proportion of the population is non student. Though the students in Cambridge will always be a minor factor, it would be wrong to suggest that their votes are unimportant.

David A. Wylie, a city councilor seeking re-election on the Cambridge Convention '75 slate, said recently that even in its present small numbers the student vote has to be considered by candidates for office. "Elections are always very, very close and even a few hundred votes will make a tremendous difference." In past elections, the city council's crucial fifth seat (the swing seat out of nine) has been won or lost by the slight margin of only 30 to 40 votes. If a lot of students were to register Wylie believes it "would shake things up a lot." But, as the Berkeley leftists found out when their radical experiment collapsed, nothing too extreme can be done on a municipal level when the state government has so much power.

As the politics of students has become more mainstream, the likelihood that they will form their own political organization has declined. And after all, when students here have the choice between getting a job with a candidate bound for the presidency or trying to get someone elected to the city council, there's very little doubt about which way they will turn.