March 24, 2014

Student Assembly Elections See Low Turnout

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This month’s Student Assembly elections dropped in turnout since last year, with fewer than 4,000 students — less than 30 percent of the undergraduate population — voting in the presidential election.

Alfonse Muglia ’14, S.A. elections director, said the goal of the elections committee was to have at least 50 percent of the undergraduate student population to vote.

“To represent the majority of students you need a majority of students to vote,” Muglia said.

Juliana Batista ’16, newly-elected executive vice president for the S.A., said the S.A. always tries to raise voter turnout, although certain obstacles prevent that from happening.

“I think we have to face some inevitabilities — there are always going to be students who don’t care about campus politics or who don’t always see what goes behind things that impact experience at Cornell,” Batista said. “Some just don’t feel that their vote is going to make a difference.”

This year, other S.A. candidates were allowed to endorse presidential candidates, and student organizations were encouraged to endorse candidates as well, according to Muglia. Endorsements had been banned in previous years.

“Our goal was to make it easier for students to associate candidates with particular issues,” Muglia said. “To an effect it did work … For the people who did vote, it was a more educated vote.”

This year’s presidential debate had approximately 250 students in attendance — larger than previous years, according to Muglia.

Muglia said that candidates endorsing presidential candidates could have contributed to the larger crowd.

“With other candidates attending, they were also rallying [for] their friends,” he said.

Voter turnout depends on many different logistics each year, according to Batista. She said this year’s low turnout could have been impacted by the timing of February Break as well as the several uncontested races — including her own race for executive vice president.

Muglia said he thinks this election’s uncontested races were a result of several sophomores and juniors on the S.A. deciding to pursue leadership roles in other organizations. The fact that there were only two presidential candidates may have also had an effect, according to Muglia.

In 2013, 4,301 students voted for an S.A. president, which had three candidates. This year, 3,829 students voted for a presidential candidate, according to the S.A. website.

Similarly, last year 4,414 students voted for an executive vice president when there were four choices. This year, with the race uncontested, 3,235 students voted for the position.

Muglia said students might not interact with the S.A. because “the culture of the school” allows for a more direct approach to resolving conflicts.

For example, President David Skorton will answer students’ emails directly, and other students will directly contact someone from the administration or an organization to have an issue addressed, rather than going in front of the S.A., according to Muglia.

“To a student it may be simpler to reach out to a friend on Interfraternity Council or Skorton directly because it sounds like that’s the fastest way to get something done,” Batista said.

Vikram Kejariwal ’16, who was recently elected as S.A. representative for the College of Engineering, said that students who are involved in organizations on campus in particular need to stay informed about the S.A.

“People on campus should care about the S.A., and I believe they do,” Kejariwal said. “It affects them, their clubs and their organizations, so they have to care.”

Batista said she hopes that the S.A.’s planned online petition platform — which allows students to have their concerns brought before the S.A. with 250 signatures — will make the S.A. “more accessible” to students.

“[The petition platform] gives us a better pulse of what’s happening on campus, what people are interested in learning more about and it gives students more buy-in on issues on campus,” Batista said.

Alex Thompson ’16 said that regardless of S.A. initiatives to increase student participation, there is little that could raise their interest due to students’ busy schedules.

“Students’ lack of interest in the S.A. is probably the same reason reason why many Cornell students don’t read the news,” Thompson said. “It’s not a top priority, so if it’s between that or finishing a problem set, they’ll finish their homework, but it’s sad because that probably translates into real politics.”

Batista said she believes one-on-one interactions between S.A. members and students on campus are a key way to get students more involved with the S.A.

“It’s not a perfect system,” Batista said. “We’re 25 people representing 14,000 undergraduates — many who wish to interact with the S.A., many who don’t care and many who care but don’t know where to start.”