Penn's first fully virtual student government elections saw a sharp decline in voter turnout — a 46.6% decrease from the spring 2019 elections.
While 3,559 students participated in the 2019 General Election, which elected candidates to the Undergraduate Assembly and Class Boards, only 1,900 students voted in the election earlier this month. Members of the Nominations and Elections Committee cited the virtual nature of campaigning as the main deterrent from voting this year.
Despite the significantly lower voter turnout, all Engineering and Nursing representative seats on the UA were filled for the first time since 2017. Special elections to fill empty College seats, which not enough students ran for, will take place in October.
In the spring 2019 General Election, students cast more than twice the number of votes for the UA President election than this year. The 2021 and 2022 Class Board President elections saw a 76% and 72% decrease, respectively, in total votes cast this year compared to the previous. The race for 2023 Class Board President experienced the smallest decrease in the number of votes cast, with only a 20% decrease.
College junior and NEC Vice Chair of Elections Zarina Iman said she believes the main reason for lower voter participation was the candidates' and NEC's inability to campaign in person. Iman added that in past years, the NEC has partnered with local businesses like the off-campus frozen yogurt shop Kiwi to provide discounts to students who voted, which they were unable to do this year.
“No one was really in person, and I think [the election] was also not really on the top of many people's minds,” Iman said.
Special elections for two College representative seats will take place in early October, Iman said. 13 of the 15 positions for College representatives on the UA were filled in the September general election.
College senior and NEC Chair Urooba Abid said she was pleasantly surprised that all five UA Engineering representative seats were filled in the General Election, as well as the single UA Nursing seat.
“Usually we're always having to do Engineering and Nursing special elections, so it was nice that it was at least something different,” Abid said.
In spring 2018, following that year’s General Election, the NEC held a special election to fill one remaining UA Engineering seat. Again in fall 2019, the NEC concluded a six-month struggle to fill four empty UA Engineering seats with two special elections. Most recently, the NEC held a special election to fill a vacant Nursing seat in which only 17 students voted earlier this February, the third consecutive election in which a Nursing candidate ran unopposed.
Abid said she predicts that filling the two remaining College seats this year will be easier than it was to fill Engineering and Nursing seats in the past due to the school's larger student body.
“Usually for College seats, it's pretty easy to find candidates who are interested who might just not have realized that they're interested in time for the deadline,” Abid said.
Iman said that in order to keep the elections process fair, the modified Fair Practices Code that was in place for the General Election will remain the same for the special elections. The modified FPC banned in-person campaigning and monetary campaigning. The NEC also reduced the number of signatures needed this year to appear on the ballot by 33% for each position due to candidate pushback during the General Election.
Abid said that NEC will likely hold elections for a 2024 Class Board this spring, but the timing and format will depend on the University’s plans for the spring semester. 2024 Class Board elections are typically held in the fall, but PSG decided to postpone them this semester because students are not together on campus.
Iman said she was overall pleased with the way the NEC handled the unusual election season, not only because it was online, but also because multiple students dropped out of the 2023 Class Board race just before polls opened.
“There were a lot of different situations that were brought up this semester that the NEC hasn't experienced in the past, but I think that we really did our best," Iman said.