Low Turnout in Student Elections

By Olivia Rowland ’21

Copy Editor & Herald Staff

With the beginning of a new school year comes another round of student government elections. As the Herald has reported in the past, turnout for these elections is usually small, and this year’s elections were no exception.

The main elections for class presidents, the William Smith Congress (WSC) executive board, and the Hobart Student Government (HSG) executive board were held on Friday, Sept. 13. Runoff elections for the Hobart first-year class president and William Smith junior class president were held the following Thursday, Sept. 16.

The new William Smith class presidents are Gabriela Nieves ’23, Isabel Urquiza ’22, Carling Landeche ’21, and Val Cuellar ’20. For Hobart, William Koepp ’23, Gib Shea ’22, Kevin Cervantes ’21, and Tanner Arnold ’20 were elected to serve as class presidents.

Margo Grapshi ’22 was elected to join the WSC executive board as secretary. The new executive board for HSG consists of Robert Russell ’22, president; Mitchell Thompson ’23, vice president; Aaron Hittman ’22, treasurer; and Andrew Gudea ’22, secretary.

In both elections, significantly more William Smith students voted than Hobart students. 99 Hobart students voted in the HSG elections, and 165 William Smith students voted in the WSC election, even though the WSC election had only one candidate for one position and the HSG government had four open positions, one of which was competitive with two candidates running.

For class presidents, 100 Hobart students voted compared to 201 William Smith students, excluding the junior class president runoff election in which 85 William Smith students voted. Despite the fact that the Hobart first-year class president election was the most competitive with three candidates, only 37 first-year Hobart students voted in the election. 37 also voted in the following runoff election.

Based on student election data from this year and previous years, it seems that Hobart students become less likely to vote as they spend more time at college, while William Smith students’ engagement remains relatively steady across all class years.

This year, only 15 Hobart seniors voted for their class president, compared to the 56 William Smith seniors who voted for theirs. First-year voter engagement among Hobart and William Smith was, however, about the same. The total number of first-year William Smith students voting for class president was 38, only one more than first-year Hobart students.

Aside from these significant differences in student turnout based on college, turnout was low across the board. Only 264 students voted in the WSC and HSG elections, and only 340 voted in class president elections and the two runoffs. It is also likely that there was significant overlap among students voting in the two elections.

Just as low engagement in student elections is nothing new, neither are many of the reasons behind it. One central reason is the lack of competitive elections, or those with at least two candidates running. Out of 13 elections, only four had more than one candidate. One of those was the election for William Smith junior class president, which originally had no candidates running and only entered a runoff election after write-in candidates appeared the day of the original election.

Without an actual competition, students may feel that their vote would not matter, since the election outcome would be the same whether or not they voted. However, the lack of engagement in the Hobart first-year class president election, as noted above, did not prompt any more Hobart students to participate in the original election or the runoff.

Another possibility for low turnout unique to HWS is the coordinate system, which sets up different student governments for Hobart and William Smith. While having separate governments ensures that an equal number of Hobart and William Smith students are elected into student government positions, it prevents students from being able to vote for a student in the other college. In other words, Hobart students cannot vote for any William Smith students and vice versa, even though both student governments work together and affect the entire student body.

Audrey Platt ’21, co-president of HWS Votes and Civic Engagement along with Bart Lahiff ’20, agrees that this may contribute to low student voter engagement. “We all have the opportunity to vote for our respective colleges, and yet within these coordinate conversations so much is going on and there is so much contention on campus with all these different divides,” she says. “We still don’t have incredible voter turnout, necessarily speaking.”

Platt also thinks that students don’t see what student governments do on campus. “There’s not a lot of understanding about how our system works right now,” she explains.

Despite the fact that many barriers to student voter engagement exist specifically at HWS, low turnout among college students is a national problem. As Platt notes, “This is only a microcosm of lack of engagement across not only the nation but other colleges.” Most colleges, she said, have a small minority of students who are most engaged, and HWS is no exception.

In her work with the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL), Platt aims to increase civic engagement on campus. This involves registering students to vote, helping students use their voices, and getting students engaged in supporting the voices of others as allies.

HWS Votes has also focused on getting students to participate in local politics in Geneva, where elections make a big difference in government. Platt thinks that student participation could “bridge that gap between the Colleges and Geneva.”

As a Student Trustee, Platt herself knows what it means to have an elected position. “I am super stoked to have a leadership position that I was elected into at the Colleges,” she says.

“The involvement in student government, the involvement in who’s representing your class, who’s representing your student body, is really unique,” says Platt. “We just need to start to pick up the pace with engagement on campus.”

HWS Votes will be working throughout the school year to engage students as voters. Students who want to get involved with campus politics can also attend WSC and HSG meetings, which are held Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. in Coxe Hall.

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