April 23, 2018

GUEST ROOM | The Real Issue in the Recent S.A. Election: Abysmal Voter Turnout

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The conversation surrounding the results of the recent Student Assembly presidential election discluded an important and highly relevant issue: Cornell’s abysmal voter turnout.

Overshadowed by a meme, a controversial Elections Committee, and several back-and-forth decisions on who would actually assume the presidency, our voter participation rate was a mere afterthought — if included at all — in campus conversations, candidates’ publicly-posted responses and Cornell Daily Sun articles.

We spent two weeks talking about utterly ridiculous circumstances — a meme created by an affiliate of a candidate, a candidate disqualified for someone else’s posting of said meme, accusations of a biased Elections Committee, an initial decision released without including final vote counts, a final decision that overturned the one prior, and a whole slew of other interesting developments. While all worth writing about, these events detracted from the more relevant and pressing issue in the recent S.A. election.

A reported 27 percent voter turnout rate. That’s right, folks, only 27 percent of Cornell undergraduate students voted in this year’s election.

When all was finally said and done, The Cornell Daily Sun posted this article, announcing that Devatha would be the next S.A. president after all. Several paragraphs in, The Sun reported the final vote counts. Devatha with 1,859 votes, Barbaria with 1,811 — all for a grand total of (drum-roll please) 3,670 total votes. Wow. 3,670 total votes. How many undergraduates are on this campus again?

According to Cornell, 14,907. Though I’m in ILR, I can still do some basic math. But let’s walk through it together, just in case. You may want to check my work.

If 3,670 undergraduate students voted, and there were 14,907 undergraduates enrolled in fall 2017 — that means roughly 24.6 percent of Cornell undergraduates voted, give or take. In other words, less than a quarter of the undergraduate population at Cornell voted. That’s almost half of the voter turnout for U.S. presidential elections in recent years, which hovers slightly above 50 percent.

But that’s not all.

If Devatha received the winning number of 1,859 votes, that means that 1,859 students out of 14,907 actively clicked the voting link to endorse his candidacy. That’s 12.5 percent of undergraduate Cornellians voting in favor of our next S.A. president. I understand the whole majority rules thing and winning the popular vote, but seriously? Any candidate voted into office with only 12.5 percent of the constituents actually endorsing him doesn’t seem to be truly endorsed by the majority of constituents.

But enough about these shamefully small numbers and more about the reasons for them. For a campus that seems to attract self-proclaimed “politically active” students, it seems strange so few students end up voting in their most local election. Let’s break it down. In any election, there are a few main reasons people don’t vote:

  1. People literally cannot vote. That’s called voter suppression, like when the U.S. creates opt-in voting systems, places polling stations miles from certain communities and doesn’t leave them open when people from those communities would have time to vote, or otherwise suppresses citizens’ ability to cast their ballots. With a link sent to every undergraduate’s email, followed by several reminders, I can guarantee you that we don’t have voter suppression here on campus. Strike one.
  2. People don’t think their vote will change the outcome. This race, however, was close. Neither candidate was a shoo-in. Both had previously served on the S.A. Both seemed generally well-liked and highly-qualified. Any cognizant voter would know their vote could have been one of the 48 that swayed the victory to either candidate. So, strike two.
  3. People don’t think the government they are electing candidates to serve within is effective. Ding, ding, ding — we have a winner. Now, before you get all “the S.A. does too do things — like ensure free New York Times and Wall Street Journal access, open Trillium for late-night dining, etc,” I know they do. Of course they do. So what’s the problem? The majority of undergraduate students either don’t know about S.A. initiatives or know but don’t care. Their apathy stems from this overall assessment of the S.A. an ineffective or irrelevant to their lives. While perhaps unfair or unwarranted, the apathy exists nonetheless, as evidenced by our painfully low voter turnout rate.

So, what’s the solution? We obviously can’t go back in time (though several parties in this election probably wish some Engineering students had come up with that technology by now). We can, however, reshape our campus environment for future elections. Key word: “we.” After all, that reshaping doesn’t fall on any one person; it’s on all of us.

To The Cornell Daily Sun staff: raise the issue. Consider picking up on the more interesting aspects of elections rather than running the same story in different forms as new information surfaces. Encourage students to vote. Cover elections accordingly.

To Devatha and the Student Assembly: address the abysmal voter turnout. Make your constituents aware of both your work and the importance of it.

To Cornell undergraduates: vote. I know you’re all busy. I know you’re all out there being the leaders, change-makers, go-getters, and generally good humans you are. But Ezra help us. Please vote.
Clare McLeod is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically.