It was hard to ignore the enthusiasm surrounding the presidential election on campus last semester. Students hung signs on dorm doors advertising phone banking, held debate-watching sessions, and in the aftermath of the campus strike, had conversations about how to advance the nation in addition to the school community. Some even changed their registrations from their home states to Pennsylvania, knowing that it was a key swing state that could determine the election.
“Student organizers did a great job of registering students to vote and making sure they knew all of the various ways they could vote,” said Zach Oberfield, a professor in the political science department. “There was a lot of confusion about mail-in ballots, the trustworthiness of the USPS, etc. and I think student groups really helped to ease concerns and provide accurate, timely information.”
Their efforts paid off. Despite there being significantly fewer students on campus last fall than in 2016, voter turnout actually increased in the voting precinct encompassing most of the college by approximately 100 votes. This turnout was consistent with trends across the country, as a historically high percentage of people aged 18–29 voted in November.
About a month prior to November 3, students received emails from Nick Lasinsky ’23, the Elections Coordinator, asking them to vote in another election—the one for Students’ Council. In these elections, the excitement wasn’t so apparent; it took Lasinsky three separate emails to get the student body to the quorum of just 530 votes to elect school-wide officers. He describes a “general apathy toward student government,” which is concerning because, at Plenary, a two-thirds majority is required to ratify the Honor Code, significantly more than the 40 percent needed for quorum in StuCo elections.
This apathy was reflected not only in low voting numbers but also in terms of nominations; for example, there were no accepted nominations for the Community Outreach Multicultural Liaison (COML) position in the fall, which involves representing underrepresented students and mediating conflicts between students. Why were students so much more willing to participate in the national election than the races on campus?
To some extent, the downward trend in Students’ Council election participation can be attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak. Unlike students who went on leave for the semester or deferred their enrollment, remote students count toward quorum. This makes remote students a unique voting bloc that feels particularly disengaged with the happenings of the student government and is less inclined to run for office or vote.
“It didn’t feel important,” said Santiago Duran ’24, a remote first-year student, about the elections process. “As a freshman learning from home, I didn’t run for anything because no one knew me. Who would vote for me?” As for voting, he felt similarly out of touch: “It felt like every other club asking for participation in my email feed.”
COVID has also created some logistical difficulties in terms of elections, resulting in multiple elections being run at different times of the semester. This contributes to voting fatigue and the feeling that students’ votes are insignificant. A similar trend plays out on the national level as well, as participation is higher in federal races than statewide or local races.
The Class of 2024 also may have had a significant impact on this contrast. Many first-years turned eighteen in the weeks and months leading up to the presidential race and were likely more excited to cast their first ballot in such a contentious contest. They are also the least familiar with student government because they have not yet experienced Plenary, the main means of exposure to its inner workings, due to COVID. This is borne out by the fact that first-years cast the least votes in StuCo and Honor Council elections in the fall.
Though some forces outside of students’ control have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm regarding Students’ Council elections, it is nonetheless concerning that such a progressive student body has been so apathetic toward student government. Low voting numbers are also concerning because a two-thirds majority is required to ratify the Honor Code in the spring.