KOTHARI: Voter turnout in student elections should be earned, not expected

As participation in student self-governance declines, leaders should look to addressing the root causes behind student apathy

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The participation rate for these races was approximately 10 percent. Max Patten | Cavalier Daily

In late February, the University Board of Elections released results from the most recent University-wide election which included races for Student Council, Honor and UJC seats as well as a number of proposed amendments. The participation rate for these races was approximately 10 percent of the student body. The lack of participation in February’s student election is only the latest in a trend of declining turnout, down from nearly 40 percent in 2017. In response, many student leaders voiced concerns over this recent trend, claiming that Honor amendments “deserve” a turnout rate higher than 10 percent and that student self-governance is dependent upon voter participation. However, most calls for increased turnout overlook the most fundamental reasons behind student apathy — a lack of buy-in and an overwhelming shortfall of meaningful initiatives.

For a majority of students at the University, Student Council initiatives fail to create any form of tangible impact on daily life. Although Student Council funds important events for the community such as concerts and Lighting of the Lawn through grants and co-sponsorships, many of these programs are executed by subcommittees or external organizations such as the University Programs Council. These programs will continue to exist and thrive regardless of the outcome of any given student election. Moreover — from a policy perspective — Student Council lacks any real authority over University policy and instead resorts to advocacy over ultimately inconsequential resolutions

Beyond the absence of both influence and significance, the sheer size and complexity of Student Council leads to disengagement from the student population. The organization features over a dozen committees, a cabinet, organizations, representatives from each school and an executive board. The bureaucratic scope of Student Council gives rise to a lack of clarity for the average voter as well as overlapping roles, effectively minimizing the importance of any given election. 

Under the status quo, the outcome of elections creates an impact that is neither tangible nor visible. Students should not be compelled to take time out of their busy schedules, sifting through the platforms of scores of candidates to vote in an election that will not make a tangible difference in their lives or the broader University community. The burden of engaging the University community through exciting initiatives and falls on the shoulders of student leaders. Instead of merely expecting higher voter turnout, candidates should put forth solutions to real problems that students face and aim to tackle issues that are critical to students’ day-to-day life. 

Like Student Council, Honor faces a similar set of issues when it comes to student buy-in. A single-sanction system, in which the sole punishment for a violation of the Honor code is permanent dismissal from the University, creates the mere illusion of a community of trust. In reality, the vast majority of Honor violations go unreported out of fear for a disproportionate administration of justice. And — of the few cases that are reported and carried through trial — only a fraction lead to a guilty verdict. Perceptions of insignificant activity within Honor create a deep sentiment of distrust and inadequacy among the student body. 

Without student buy-in, it is unreasonable for student leaders to expect the student body to care about trivial reforms to an organization that fails to fulfill its primary mission. Before students are expected to consider the amendments put forth, organizations like Honor ought to work toward a renewed sense of legitimacy and purpose. Whether this purpose arrives through changes to the single-sanction system or changes in reporting culture, it is imperative that Honor addresses their most fundamental flaws before expecting higher student participation.

Some argue that the best way to promote student self-governance is through participation in electoral processes and engagement with organizations such as Student Council and Honor. However, upon increased perceptions of illegitimacy toward organizations such as Student Council and Honor, it is incumbent upon candidates — not voters — to offer solutions and reform that is exciting and meaningful to the daily lives of the student body. 

The University’s approach to student self-governance grants students a unique status as valued stakeholders from the moment they set foot on Grounds and is virtually unparalleled among higher education institutions. While the commitment and resolve of student leaders at the University are respectable, complacency in the face of declining institutional trust cannot be tolerated. Ultimately, student leaders should look to re-examine their positions and think critically about whether or not their solutions will truly make a difference prior to expecting higher voter turnout.

Neil Kothari is a Viewpoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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