By Olivia Rowland ‘21
Almost a month after the midterm elections, students had the opportunity to vote in another election, this time for the executive board of William Smith Congress. But the atmosphere surrounding both opportunities for civic participation was unmistakably different.
The HWS community put a lot of effort into mobilizing for the midterm elections. By Nov. 6, HWS Votes and the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) had gotten 702 students registered to vote via TurboVote, compared to the 244 students who were registered on TurboVote for the 2014 midterms.
HWS Votes continued to hold events to promote voting right up until election night. They hosted a fifteenth anniversary dinner and panel about civic engagement and the reasons why voting matters. On Nov. 6, they organized a fairly well-attended election night party for students and community members, who watched the returns come in live.
Additional voter registration efforts were carried out by other political organizations on campus, including the College Democrats and Young Americans for Freedom.
The midterm election ended up being significant in terms of voter turnout, specifically the voter turnout of the youngest demographic. According to NPR, around 47 percent of the electorate voted on or before Nov. 6, which represents a large increase from 2014’s 37 percent turnout. The same increase applied to the turnout of 18 to 29 year olds, which, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement, was 31 percent, up from 21 percent in 2014.
Of course, there were still many students at HWS who did not vote. Even those who did not vote, however, could not be unaware of the election, and were undoubtedly encouraged to vote by the campus community. The same cannot be said for the William Smith Congress elections held on Dec. 4. This is certainly one factor that affected the low turnout of William Smith student voters. Around 183 William Smith students voted in the WSC election, representing a turnout rate of about 15 percent.
These rates are not surprising; as the Herald noted in its first issue of the semester, campus elections are known for low voter turnout, and most students appear to be apathetic when it comes to voting for student government positions. The results of this election are a little bit higher than other student government elections this year, but not significantly so.
Sophie Ritter ’20, President of WSC, identified two main reasons why most students are not completing their online ballots. “I think that the first reason is that all of the elections go out over email, and a lot of our advertisements are over email as well. Students don’t tend to check their email, so they aren’t getting the message that there is an election and then also aren’t getting the ballot that’s sent to them.”
“Another reason students aren’t voting is because a lot of students are running unopposed for positions,” Ritter says. “Students aren’t voting because they think their vote doesn’t matter.”
Indeed, many will argue that campus elections are not nearly as important as national elections, but students’ votes in student government elections matter simply because what student government does on campus matters. WSC and its counterpart, Hobart Student Government, occupy an increasingly important role in students’ daily lives on campus.
In the past, most students viewed student government as “the place to go to get funding for events and clubs.” However, Ritter says that WSC is moving in a different direction this year. “We’ve really tried to reshape that narrative and make it more about advocating for students and what they need and want on campus.”
“We do have the ability to advocate for students, to reach out to the people who need to know about certain things that are happening on campus,” says Ritter, “but it’s hard to know what students want if they’re not engaged in student government.”
Although WSC has the ability to advocate for students and get the campus to change on their behalf, it can only do so if students communicate their wants and needs. One way to do so easily is to vote in student government elections. But civic engagement goes beyond voting once a year, and, unlike the U.S. government, WSC and HSG provide all HWS students with an opportunity to participate in government almost year-round. This opportunity comes through weekly WSC and HSG meetings, which students who truly want to have their voices heard should attend.
WSC and HSG usually meet Tuesdays at 8:00 pm in Coxe 7 or 8. Students who are unavailable to go to those meetings also have the option of submitting ideas and concerns to the student government suggestion box located in Scandling.
This semester, WSC has focused its efforts on updating the blue light system on campus. WSC worked with Marty Corbett, Director of Campus Safety, on this project, which takes direction from students’ expressed concerns with the current blue lights.
“One thing we’ve really had a big say in is telling them what we think is most important to change and where we think there needed to be new lights,” Ritter revealed. Thanks to WSC, Campus Safety is working to add new blue lights, fix current ones, and make all more visible to students as they walk across campus.
“It is actually happening,” Ritter emphasized. “Slowly but surely, that’s something that’s actually happening.”
This initiative is a powerful example of what students can accomplish when they work with student government. Engagement of this kind can and should go beyond voting—but voting is a good place to start.