No supply, no demand
Limited action by student governance organizations could cause voter apathy
According to the University Board of Elections, voter participation in this year’s student elections fell to a dismal 25 percent. Last year, about 40 percent of students participated, and the year before, about 32. We have already expressed a concern over diminishing student engagement with regards to the abundance of uncontested elections. But now seeing the voter participation significantly reduced, it is necessary to examine the issue of apathy more closely.
The races for different positions in the different schools elicited a wide range of participation rates. Contested elections more frequently had higher rates of participation, which may seem like an obvious point given that students have more efficacy in the outcome of a contested race. But even among contested races, many participation rates were still below 50 percent. Only Batten Undergraduate Council President and Law School elections for Student Bar Association officer positions garnered more than 50 percent participation.
This seems to indicate that students need more motivation than just a contested race to cast their votes. They must have a reason to be truly invested in the outcome of the election. And if a large majority of students are not participating, this likely indicates that the various branches of student government at the University are not doing much that really impacts the student body as whole.
The overall participation rate of 40 percent last year was probably due to the heated debate about the Honor Committee’s proposed Restore the Ideal Act, which would have eliminated random student juries and mixed juries as options for Honor trials and added Informed Retraction as an option for accused students. The act was voted down by the student body, while Informed Retraction was approved separately. Many students expressed strong discontent with the Honor Committee’s proposal. In the time between the Committee’s vote on the Restore the Ideal Act and the student-wide election, a new student group called Students’ Honor Caucus formed. Students’ Honor Caucus dedicated themselves to fostering student discussion about the Honor system. The group also opposed the passage of the Restore the Ideal Act. However, there seems to be very little activity amongst Students’ Honor Caucus presently. Their Facebook page has not been active since the election results were released in March of 2013.
The foundation of Students’ Honor Caucus is evidence of the high number of University students invested in the future of the Honor system, but the group also raises questions that have since gone unanswered. Was their objective to foster conversation about Honor, or to start a campaign against the Restore the Ideal Act? To do both seems contradictory, since declaring a position on a particular policy issue would probably discourage contributions from any students who held opposing viewpoints. Additionally, the fact that the group seems to have died away indicates either that their purpose has already been served, or that there just isn’t any interest anymore, now that the campaign is long over.
Though the Honor Committee has been criticized for running a “vote yes” campaign for a proposal that was introduced with no input from the student body, they must be given credit for at least taking some kind of initiative. What was different about the Restore the Ideal Act was that it offered a change that had a real, tangible effect on students. The proposal spurred enough enthusiasm to stimulate the formation of a new group; the kind of enthusiasm that should be a constant force at the University, rather than popping up to assist in oppositional campaigns. When the campaign dies away, the discussion should not die with it.
For the future, student leadership and the general population of the student body should both recognize that they must take initiatives. Many candidates in this year’s races expressed a desire to solicit student opinion in order to determine what changes should be made. Such desires are commendable, but in relying on students, governing organizations should be careful not to dull their own enterprise. Apathy can be cyclic, if both the governing organizations and the students are looking at each other, simultaneously transmitting a telepathic message which may or may not be getting through: “your move.”