The turnout for the recent Undergraduate Assembly elections was just 39 percent, down from last year’s 54 percent. This means that our president elect, Jane Meyer, was chosen by a small sliver of the undergraduate population that she now represents. The vast majority of that population was — and probably remains — indifferent.
But are we alone in caring so little about our representative student government?
The answer, it seems, is “No.” The issue of low voter participation is endemic to many campuses.
The percentage of voter turnout for the Ivies generally hovers in the 40s and 50s, but reports show that in recent years, these numbers have been declining. In an extreme case, Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students elections only drew in 28 percent of its voter base in 2012. Students don’t feel the need to vote because they don’t see the impact of the results, The Brown Daily Herald reported at the time.
And then there was the 2013 Harvard Undergraduate Council election snafu, when the winning ticket, Sam Clark ’15 and Gus Mayopoulos ’15, was a satirical platform advocating for thicker toilet paper and tomato basil ravioli soup at all meals. The two other tickets had both boasted extensive UC experience and numerous endorsements. While Clark and Mayopoulos originally planned to resign before inauguration, Mayopoulos later changed his mind, citing a need for new leadership that would bridge the disconnect between students and their government.
The common theme is a lack of relevancy of student government to the lives of the average student voter. In our previous editorial, we discussed the impotency of the UA as an effective vehicle for enacting change, which curtails any enthusiasm for its elections.
But while the issue of relevancy is pervasive on all campuses, our UA suffers further from a lack of visibility, widespread information and knowledge about the various positions being put up for vote.
At institutions like Harvard, where voter turnout is relatively higher at over 50 percent, student government elections make up a large part of the community life when they are in session. Tickets have scores of supporters that aid in running a successful publicity campaign. The candidates, and the election, are highly visible.
In comparison, Penn students tend to be uninformed about the individual candidates and the positions that they are vying for.
Ask yourself: do you know what the UA president and vice president do?
What about the Wharton, College, Engineering and Nursing representatives? The Class Boards and their own plurality of presidents, VPs and chairs?
There are a myriad of positions that we are expected to vote for, but no one really knows exactly what they do. This extends to the UA as a whole, which for many students is simply “the airport shuttle club.” Therefore, most voters end up voting only for the names that they recognize. While the Nominations & Elections Committee touts 39 percent as the voter turnout for the recent elections, only a meager 1,671 ballots were cast for the presidential election itself. The Brown Daily Herald recently advocated for making voting for every position mandatory when voting for any position. While we do not believe this will solve the situation, the fact remains that the vast majority of voters are close associates of the candidates and don’t care at all about any of the other elected positions.
If the UA wants to make itself more relevant, it first needs to make sure that the student body that it is supposed to represent has a better understanding of its functions. The distinct lack of visibility and information is what leads to our current state of apathy, which in turn is burying any potential that the UA should have.
This disconnect between the UA and students needs to be bridged.
We also suspect that one of the causes of this disconnect is the recent trend of tickets appealing to student groups for their endorsements. Only the vice president, as head of the UA’s Steering Committee, must specifically represent the interests of various student organizations. By targeting student groups, other candidates are failing to connect to the individual student, whom they are supposed to represent. By remaining within their segregated ingroups, candidates end up addressing an audience that already shares their opinions and interests. Thus we smile, applaud and shake hands within a bubble of groupthink, disconnected from our peers outside of the bubble.
But whatever the reason for this isolationism, as the entity representing the entirety of the student body, the UA is uniquely placed to bridge these gaps between the self-segregated students enclaves, not propagate them.
So please, Undergraduate Assembly, unite our campus. Only then can meaningful change be wrought.
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