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Voter apathy depresses turnout

Students say mix of indifference, disconnection contributes to low election turnout

<p>Some attribute the low voter turnout to disconnection with the election and candidates.&nbsp;</p>

Some attribute the low voter turnout to disconnection with the election and candidates. 

The University created the University Board of Elections in 2003 to oversee and regulate University-wide student elections of Student Council, the Honor Committee, the University Judiciary Committee and class councils. The aim of UBE is to maintain the ideal of student self-governance and allow for honest, active elections.

UBE reflects some of the values of the University that many students hold in high esteem. However, this component of student self-governance draws only a small percentage of students to participate in election.

“No, I didn’t [vote],” second-year College student Chris Yeung said. “I guess maybe I didn’t feel like my vote really mattered that much. Or I didn’t really know the candidates that well, didn’t feel a connection to it.”

Yeung was not alone in his choice not to vote in student elections. Only 24.77 percent of students voted for Student Council president in the spring of 2016, and turnout never passed 50 percent for year-specific offices such as Second- and Third-Year Class Council. This means more than half the student body in each year had no input in the selection of their peers who control the activities and initiatives of their class.

Student elections are an integral part of the University’s core tenet of student self-governance. So why do so few students participate?

Voter turnout — by the numbers

First, the question of why voter turnout is so low can be analyzed using statistics. Student participation in general student body elections has increased in recent years, but only by small margins.

Voter participation for Student Council President was only 16.26 percent in 2014. It increased by nearly five percent the following year, rising to 21.07 percent. Last year participation rose 3.7 percent to include almost a quarter of the student body at 24.77 percent.

Participation in elections for class council, on the other hand, tends to fluctuate. The percentage of eligible students who voted for Second-Year Council president in 2014 was 17.55 percent. In 2015 it jumped to 41.91 percent and remained around that margin last year with 41.08 percent. Third-Year Council saw a drop in participation. In 2014, 42.45 percent of eligible students participated but in 2015 numbers decreased to 37.18 percent and remained at 37.94 percent last year.

By school, Batten — graduate and undergraduate combined — had the highest voter turnout with 53.11 percent voting for the Honor representative and 46.89 percent voting for the Judiciary representative in 2016. Nursing, Education, Architecture and Medicine had the lowest rates of participation — less than 20 percent of students in each school participated in the elections.

Engineering, Commerce and the College had rates of voter turnout similar to those of the general student body elections. Participation within the three schools ranged between 21 percent and 32 percent.

The statistics are both telling and ambiguous. Voter turnout for general student body elections is increasing. However, other elections show no clear upward or downward trends. Additionally, participation in elections is significantly lower in certain schools as opposed to others. Schools with smaller student populations, such as Nursing, Architecture and Education tend to have fewer students vote in elections than larger schools such as the College and Engineering.

Yet, Batten is not as large as either the College or the Engineering School and saw the highest voter turnout by a significant margin — Batten student participation in electing the school’s Honor representative was 30.1 percent and 28.15 percent higher than student participation in electing Honor representatives in the Engineering and the College, respectively.

The University is not alone — low student participation affects peer institutions

Low turnout in student elections is not a problem only the University faces. Other colleges and universities struggle to increase student awareness and engagement in the election process.

James Madison University holds student elections similar to the University in the beginning of every spring semester. Students vote in two rounds of elections — major and minor. Major elections are for overall student body government and student members to the Board of Visitors, while minor elections deal with class councils and college representatives.

In previous years, about 10 percent of the student body has voted in major elections, Eric Hoang, elections commissioner and a senior in the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at JMU, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

“This certain issue I’ve been trying to combat this year,” Hoang said. “It’s just hard to get the word out to the general public.”

Voter turnout often reflects how contentious and large the elections are, Hoang said. More competitive races with more candidates often attract more votes.

“Last year we did have a very good voter turnout but that was also because we had quite a lot of people running,” Hoang said. “There was a lot of competition involved. So generally it depends on that.”

This year the JMU Student Government Association hosted a debate with the candidates and livestreamed the event from their Facebook page.

“We had all the major elections candidates come in,” Hoang said. “It was just me asking each candidate a couple questions on their platform, on what they want to do when they get elected and why they thought they were the best candidate.”

Hoang and members of Student Government are trying to devise other ways to increase student engagement in elections, such as having the university’s mascot, Duke Dog, stand in a central quad with signs advocating for the elections.

The problems JMU is facing with voter turnout are strikingly similar to those at the University and other peer institutions like Virginia Tech.

Last year 19 seats in Virginia Tech’s legislative body remained unfilled. The assembly, previously consisting of a house of representatives and a senate, had just combined into a unicameral legislative branch and received an insufficient amount of candidates to fill every seat during the election.

Why students don’t vote

Some students attribute low voter turnout at the University to a disconnect between students and the representatives they are electing, while others identify limited available information and general lack of awareness.

“It was a little confusing,” second-year Curry student Traci Yuen said. “I heard all the news about it but I didn’t really know how to go about it.”

Even students who have voted, such as third-year College student Miles Braxton and second-year College student Francesca Callicotte, identified flaws in the system that may contribute to apparent voter apathy.

“Usually I’ve noticed that individuals who don’t feel like something necessarily concerns them, don’t necessarily become that involved within it and I feel like that’s the majority of the U.Va. population,” Callicotte said.

Braxton similarly addressed priorities and how student government is not the main focus of most students.

“I guess it doesn’t really affect what a lot of students are here to do and that’s to get a degree,” Braxton said. “To vote for one person over the other really won’t affect them at all academically so I guess that’s a big factor.”

Another factor, according to Braxton, might be the weak appeal to minority students. Reaching out to more minority groups could increase voter participation.

“I know that a lot of what consists of student government here doesn’t include minorities just because we’re not necessarily running for those positions,” Braxton said. “So I think specifically minority outreach, going to different black fraternities and sororities, going to BSA and kind of expressing their platform and what they have to offer, I think that would be a good way [to increase voter turnout].”

For many students, it comes down to how much they feel their vote counts and how they are directly impacted by that vote.

“I think showing what those individuals actually do and how they affect the student at the individual level is pretty important,” Callicotte said. “I still don’t really know how [the] Student Council president necessarily affects me everyday … So I think if that [were] more clear and concise then people would be a lot more involved.”

Addressing low voter turnout

The University Board of Elections, which conducts student elections, acknowledges the issue of low voter turnout in recent years and has been trying to combat the issue.

Reflecting the sentiments of many students, third-year College student and UBE Chair Casey Schmidt attributes low voter turnout to a lack of student awareness of the process or its significance.

“I believe students are less inclined to vote because they don't fully understand what they're voting for or the importance of it,” Schmidt said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “As much as we advertise the idea of student self-governance, it's another thing for students to actually act on it when they have the opportunity.”

Still, UBE is making a concentrated effort to remedy the issue. There have been concrete changes to spreading awareness about the elections and getting more students involved.

“Last year we increased our marketing efforts with things like handing out cups and pens to students during the voting period. And this year we are trying to do even more,” Schmidt said. “We're going to be hosting polling stations around Grounds on the first day of voting. We hope that by making voting an in-person experience it will feel more real and consequential.”

The UBE will host student elections beginning Feb. 21 at 10 am and continuing through Feb. 23 at 4 pm. The UBE is looking forward to a record number of students running for positions in traditionally underrepresented schools including Architecture, Commerce, Nursing and Curry.

“I think the problem of students being preoccupied with different things can especially be seen in the disparity across schools,” Schmidt said. “Leveling this would take a lot of effort on both the UBE and current leadership in those schools to raise awareness about elections.”

As progress is made toward increasing voter turnout, however, there is only so much the UBE can do. Ultimately, the decision to increase voter participation at the University depends on the demographic the elections affect the most — the students.


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