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Student self governance responds to low voter turnout

20 percent of students participated in this year’s elections, yet referenda still failed to reach the necessary participation for passage

Participation in Student Council presidential elections has steadily decreased since 2017.
Participation in Student Council presidential elections has steadily decreased since 2017.

The University Board of Elections released results Friday for this year’s University-wide elections. Efforts from UBE, Honor, the University Judiciary Committee, Student Council and candidates campaigning increased overall voter turnout to 20 percent this year, compared to last year’s 18 percent. However, in the election of Student Council president, just 10 percent of students voted. Additionally, referenda from Honor and UJC were both unable to reach the necessary 10 percent of student body participation, despite over 90 percent of voters approving some of the legislation.

Dean of Students Allen Groves believes that the numbers for this year’s elections are too low, saying that, at a University that promotes student self-government, he wishes more students would participate.

“Staff in Student Affairs would prefer high student turnout in these elections, as it is indicative of strong student interest,” Groves said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Low turnout is always a concern for this reason. Ultimately, it is incumbent upon candidates to generate voter interest and enthusiasm, similar to federal, state and municipal elections.”

UJC Chair Shannon Cason, a fourth-year in the College, voiced dissatisfaction with the voter turnout numbers for UJC elections. She does not think participation will increase if student organizations do not increase efforts. This year they attempted to raise awareness through polling stations, social media and meet-and-greet events.

“I wasn't surprised that the voter turnout is what it is,” Cason said. “And I also don't think any organizations came up with amazing ideas or plans on how to improve voter turnout. I haven't seen any major changes since my first year on that sort of front, so I'm not surprised. I'm disappointed.”

Cason is concerned that student participation in elections remains low due to minority groups feeling that their voices are not valued. In order to change this, she believes minority groups need to be included in more conversations that special status CIOs –– such as Honor, Student Council and UJC –– have.

“Including them in those conversations from the beginning will make people feel like the space is more inclusive for them,” Cason said. “And if they would like to join something like this [UJC], they can.”

Honor’s Vice Chair of Education Mary Beth Barksdale, a fourth-year in the College, believes that the inability to pass referenda from Honor and UJC comes from students’ fundamental misunderstanding about the value of their votes.

“It's the fact that people felt that their vote didn't matter … they didn't feel like they had a lot of efficacy in the outcome of the election,” Barksdale said. “And so, why put in the effort to go all the way through, read all the platforms and all the way down to the referendum if it's not going to matter what you say?”

Barksdale also wrote an opinion article for The Cavalier Daily encouraging students to vote for the Honor impeachment amendment –– which would allow Honor to remove and replace ineffective committee members –– and the Popular Assembly amendment –– which would make Honor’s Popular Assembly an annual event. 

However, both motions failed to reach the required amount of students to adopt these amendments.

“In my personal opinion, I tried to make it clear why it was important to vote, even if things are not controversial, even if things are not necessarily something that you care specifically about,” Barksdale said. “There's some value in working to improve this place and to improve our institutions.”

University Board of Elections Chair Mason Fuller, a fourth-year in the College, had the goal this year to increase voter turnout overall. Fuller believes she accomplished this goal due to the polling stations located around Grounds that were staffed by various members of UBE, Honor, UJC and Student Council. Although UBE did not track the number of people who voted at polling stations, she noted that 39.4 percent of students used their phone to vote.

“It's just in your face, you know,” Fuller said about the stations. “It's easy to kind of ignore things when it's on your phone, but when you're seeing it in person … I think it makes it more real and makes it more tangible.”

Fuller also thinks CIO endorsements aided UBE’s efforts to make students realize the impact of elections. She noted that with over 650 CIO’s at the University, more organizations should make endorsements in future elections to create a more holistic student body vote. This year, 10 CIO’s offered endorsements.

“We have so many CIOs and they really appeal to all these different diverse interests that everybody has,” Fuller said. “If we get more really involved, then it'll start to reach more sectors of the University that maybe don't usually vote or don't usually get involved.”

Fuller admitted that The Cavalier Daily’s Student Council Presidential Candidate Forum, co-sponsored by UBE, probably helped increase interest in student elections, with third-year College student Hunter Wagenaar withdrawing from the race in his closing statements, and The Cavalier Daily’s editorial board subsequently calling for a postponement of the election. 

UBE says it will post a press release soon regarding Wagenaar’s allegations.

“Unfortunately, drama like that sometimes does help [increase voter turnout],” Fuller said.

Third-year College student Ellen Yates was elected Student Council president in an uncontested race.

The increase that Fuller references comes from a greater participation in school and class council elections –– for example, Third Year Council participation increased from 15.65 percent in 2019 to 28.53 percent in 2020. In contrast, just 10 percent of the student body participated in the Student Council presidential election — something Fuller is not worried about. 

“The number that you'll see for Student Council president doesn't reflect the full turnout,” Fuller said. “I'm sure because there's only one person in the Student Council president race, not as many people chose to vote for that. But that doesn't mean they didn't vote for the other races … Not everybody votes for every single race.”

The school with the highest turnout was the Batten Graduate Council President race with 34.55 percent turnout, or 66 out of 191 students participating. Fuller mentioned that Batten, along with the Commerce school, were in contact with her regularly discussing how to increase the public’s knowledge about these elections.

Honor’s vice chair for community relations Lucy Krasker, a fourth-year in the Commerce school, mentioned that Honor hosted events this past week in an effort to increase voter turnout. The meet-and-greet events allowed students to ask questions to the current executive committee about how Honor works and talk with candidates about their platforms. 

“I think that's a cause for concern, and each year we put something on the ballot, that we hope students recognize is important to vote on,” Krasker said. “So we just want to make sure that the student body is aware of some of the changes that we're trying to make to this system.”

Despite the low turnout, Krasker hopes future Honor committees continue to host these events, as they provide students an opportunity to talk directly with the organization.

“We want to make sure that we are approachable and accessible to the student body when they want to meet us,” Krasker said. “But I think it was important that we were putting ourselves out there.”

Student Council did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.