Northwest Student Senate elections are this week. Once again, many positions, including the entire executive board, are unopposed and high voter turnout is not expected. The second most powerful governing body — behind the Northwest Board of Regents — and self-proclaimed “voice of the students” will have its election pass with little surprise or fanfare. It’s not entirely their fault that participation in student government is low, but there are a few things they could change to make it better.
Elections are conducted online through email links and open from Monday to Friday. This year’s ballot can barely even be considered a ballot by most standards. Sure, there is the option to vote in favor of a candidate or abstain or oppose a candidate, but it doesn’t feel like it will matter. Some of the screens on the ballot instruct you to select up to four candidates out of a four-candidate pool for the position. You don’t even get a sticker to say you voted. It all feels futile, and that’s why people don’t participate.
Less than 6% of students cast a ballot in last year’s election. While COVID-19 definitely in some ways attributed to low turnout, 2020 elections were by no means an outlier. The year prior, 9.23% of students voted in the election. There isn’t any reason to believe there will be a marketed improvement this year as the core problem remains; the most important races are uncontested.
Last year’s “Elevate” ticket and this year’s “Innovate” ticket both entered elections unopposed. It’s not necessarily the fault of the candidates on each ticket that they have or had no competition. It is, however, indicative of a larger problem.
For starters, it feels like the executive board assumes their mantles each year rather than runs for them. Underclassmen are in essence groomed to fill a position. It’s not a bad thing that those running for executive positions have experience, but it is bad that no one is willing to challenge them. Thus the elections become a foregone conclusion and the cycle repeats itself. When the most important and recognizable posts are uncontested, there’s no reason to vote.
The filing deadline and election date are also entirely too close together. Filing started March 22 and if candidate’s filed early they could have that whole week to campaign. However, the filing deadline was Sunday and the start of the election was Monday making it impossible for those who filed a little later to campaign before ballots were sent out.
Under the current system, Student Senate campaigns amount to one or two social media posts per candidate that are only viewed by people who are already associated with them. It defeats the entire purpose of the process if candidates only campaign to their friends, who are likely already going to vote for them.
There should be at least a week or two-week gap between the filing deadline and the election, where candidates can campaign and students can attempt to familiarize themselves with those running.
That brings up another question: Why is there no candidate forum? Even high school student government elections had those. They weren’t great, but at least the student body got to hear from the candidates.
It was likely cut out due to time or maybe safety precautions, but not having an open forum for candidates is a big whiff. We aren’t saying everyone needs to be gathered together in Bearcat Stadium and listen to candidates give speeches for an hour. It would be nice, though, if students had the opportunity to hear from the people that will be governing them. They could even do it during the Student Senate meeting that happens once a week in one of the largest rooms on campus.
It would hopefully get those who don’t attend Student Senate meetings to attend. It would also make it easier to contest seats, as those candidates would be promised at least some time to challenge and distinguish themselves from those running.
It’s not all Student Senate’s fault that this is happening. The age group that college students fall into are routinely the least civically engaged. We are less likely to vote in elections all the way down from the national to city levels. The student body at large allowed it to happen. We have turned student government into a niche activity that only a few people care about, and then we turn around and complain when things don’t go our way.
It’s a vicious cycle that permeates society as a whole but is ripe in college. The things Student Senate does and has the power to do affect almost every student almost every day. At the very least, we all pay money to support them and their efforts.
Student Senate is powerful. They can allocate funding, bring attention to causes and they represent students in front of Northwest Administration and the Board of Regents. They are supposed to be our direct line to make change, and we need competent leaders in those positions. So, why does it feel like their elections feel more like one of the dozens of surveys sent to our student emails every semester?
Students need to start caring about Student Senate, and for that to happen, Student Senate needs to make it easier for them to care.