Elections don’t get much attention from students

Ashlee Clark

Nick Jaha knows he should vote in the Student Government Association’s elections, which are being held today and tomorrow.

He just probably won’t.

“I guess it’s important, but I just choose not to,” the Louisville freshman said. “I probably should.”

Most Western students are like Jaha – they aren’t participating in SGA elections.

Last year, 2,014 students voted in the SGA elections out of the 16,808 students who were enrolled.

Some students aren’t voting because they don’t have the time or knowledge of the candidates.

Others are just indifferent to the process.

But SGA members and others are encouraging students to take action by campaigning. Some also believe the three contested executive offices will promote the elections for executive officers and senate positions today and tomorrow.

Lack of civic engagement isn’t just an issue on the Hill. Low voter turnout is common among college students across the country.

Saundra Ardrey, head of the political science department, said low voter participation is typical of 18 to 24 year olds.

She said college students are at a point in their lives when they are “footloose and fancy-free,” without many career or family responsibilities.

Students may be too preoccupied with balancing activities and schoolwork to care about SGA elections, Ardrey said.

“They may see the SGA elections as not having as much of an impact in their life,” she said. “That’s why the candidates have to frame the issues so students do care.”

SGA President John Bradley said college students are generally focusing their attention on multiple things at a time.

Students may not think they have time to be civically engaged, he said.

Charley Pride, coordinator of student activities and organizations, said students vote more if they have a personal connection to one of the candidates in an election.

“We’d love to have more people vote, but it’s a person’s choice whether they vote or not,” he said.

And low turnout for student government elections isn’t something new to Western.

It has existed since the organization was created in 1966 as the Associated Students of Western Kentucky University.

Lowell Harrison, a retired history professor and author of “Western Kentucky University,” said he can’t remember a student government election that had a large number of voters.

He said students may not vote because of “sheer indifference.”

“They don’t really know what the concern is, and instead of trying to find out what it is, they simply ignore it,” he said.

Other colleges and universities across the state and country have had more success in attracting students to cast votes for student government candidates.

Some universities have larger voter turnout because of student attitude and SGA activities.

Brian Haley, student government president at the University of Texas in Austin, said his constituents are very involved in elections and other campus organizations.

He said many UT students come to the university in Texas’ capital to be involved in politics and “become catalysts for change.”

About 11,300 of UT’s 50,000 students voted in this semester’s elections, Haley said.

“We’re a very active and involved student population,” he said.

Will Nash, SGA press secretary at the University of Kentucky, said students need to care more about student government.

“They don’t understand how student government affects their lives on a daily basis,” he said.

UK’s SGA offers services to students, including escort services at night and an on-campus DVD rental membership, he said.

He said they have also lobbied the state legislature when budget cuts to higher education were announced.

SGA members at Western are hoping that an increased number of candidates can attract more voters in this year’s elections. All three executive offices are contested this year.

Contested elections have improved voter numbers at other universities.

“The more people running for president, the more people vote,” said Jeanie Morgan, coordinator of student activities at Murray State University.

Haley said it “absolutely helps” voter turnout by having a large number of candidates.

Ten students ran for president in UT’s election this semester, he said.

Executive and legislative candidates can run under one ticket with themes such as “Focus” or “Represent,” he said. Some tickets had more than 40 candidates.

Running under one ticket allows multiple candidates to collaborate while campaigning, Haley said.

Posters promoting the SGA elections have been hanging across the Hill for the past few weeks.

But some students still feel they are not aware of what the candidates have to offer them.

The candidates have spent the past two weeks campaigning to inform students about the elections.

Some candidates have also talked to different classes and organizations, along with participating in a debate on Thursday.

Ardrey said candidates have to make sure they address issues that concern students, such as budget cuts or plus/minus grading, and distinguish themselves from other candidates.

“It’s up to the candidate and the SGA to generate interest in the process,” she said.

But some students feel they aren’t knowledgeable enough about the candidates to vote intelligently in the elections.

“I don’t know them,” Bardstown freshman Barrett Mattingly said. “It makes no difference who I vote for. It would just be a random guess.”

Ardrey said voter turnout can be negatively affected by single-candidate elections or elections with multiple candidates that are very similar.

Bradley said SGA’s visibility this year, with issues such as plus/minus grading, may help attract people to TopNet to vote.

“This year there was a major philosophy change in student government,” he said.

He said many students had a perception that SGA was only out to self-promote and wasn’t outspoken on issues concerning students until this year.

“I believe that we’ve corrected a lot of problems that student government has had in the past,” he said.

Alternatives to traditional voting at poll locations has helped make voting more convenient for students.

Online voting has helped improve turnout at Western and other universities.

“I think it’s important for student government to get out, make it as easy as possible for students to express their opinion through a vote,” Haley said.

He said 5,000 to 7,000 voted before UT’s elections were held online.

Bowling Green senior Brittanie Kirby said one reason she didn’t vote in the past was because she had to go down to Downing University Center to vote.

She said the building was out of her way.

“I didn’t really take the effort to go down there and vote,” she said.

Reach Ashlee Clark at [email protected]