Jing Jiang / Sun Senior Photographer

Thursday's virtual Student Assembly meeting had less chaos than its meeting two weeks ago.

November 22, 2020

Low Voter Turnout a Trend for S.A. Elections

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This fall saw remarkably low voter turnouts for multiple student-elected positions, following a years-long trend of poor turnout.

Not many Cornellians have turned out for campus elections in recent history, culminating in multiple election results with less than one-fifth of the study body turning out. Some of its Ivy League peers have been able to maintain higher turnout, but other low turnouts have happened recently on other campuses.

Only 16.85 percent of Cornell students voted in this year’s Student Assembly election, a significant decline from 39.9 percent in 2019. That number was high compared to previous votes, showing large fluctuation in student turnout recently.

Dating back to 2017, Cornell’s average voter turnout has averaged 28.3 percent, lower than many of its Ivy League peers. After two years hovering just under 30 percent turnout, 2019 saw significantly increased turnout at 39.9 percent.

From that peak came a sharp decline in 2020, with under 20 percent of students voting in the election. Low turnout for the S.A. presidential election was followed up by an even lower turnout for other positions. In the graduate and professional student trustee race — which all Cornell students could vote on — only 9 percent of the student body voted.

Turnout for Cornell’s elections has often trailed many of its Ancient Eight peers.

Part of this voter engagement problem may come from COVID-19. Joining Cornell in conducting its student presidential election this semester were the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia. Like Cornell, Penn saw a sharp decline in voter turnout this semester — by 46.6 percent — from the spring 2019 elections. 

While Cornell pushed back its S.A. elections from spring to the fall, several Ivy League peers conducted their elections last semester as scheduled. Brown, which held its Undergraduate Student Council election in April, had a 37 percent voter turnout, a seven percent drop from the previous year. Harvard’s turnout decreased from previously, relatively high numbers over 40 percent to roughly 25 percent this year. 

In recent years, a number of Cornell’s student-elected positions have been beset by scandal, potentially explaining subpar turnout.  In 2018, a meme initially disqualified a candidate for S.A. president, although this decision was eventually overturned. 

A year later, undergraduate trustee candidate JT Baker ’21 — who was later revealed to have won the most votes — was disqualified by the Trustee Nominating Committee over an email sent by a staff member in the athletics department alerting student athletes of his campaign. He was ultimately appointed to another trustee position, but only after a subsequent intervention from President Martha Pollack and Board of Trustees chair Robert Harrison ’76.  

This year, confusion over voting procedure once again thrust a Cornell election into disorder. Races for S.A. president and undergraduate representative to the University Assembly were re-held after it was widely revealed that voters who did not rank all candidates in either of those races had their ballots invalidated. In S.A. elections conducted the previous year, thousands of votes were thrown out for this reason.      

Not all of the Ivy League universities saw a decrease in voter turnout for this year’s student presidential election, however. Princeton’s voter turnout averaged to 54 percent, an increase from its 42.2 percent voter turnout in 2019. Additionally, Dartmouth saw one of the highest voter turnouts in the school’s recent history at 41.3 percent, only falling short to the voter turnout of 2018.

Past reports have shown that Cornell stacks up poorly among its Ivy League peers in turnout. A Brown Daily Herald article in 2018 compared all Ivy League voter turnout that year, with Cornell finishing last. 
As previously mentioned, Princeton and Dartmouth have been able to keep their turnout rates noticeably higher than Cornell’s. Other Ivies have had very low turnout years in the recent past. Brown saw a 20 percent turnout rate in 2017, and Yale’s 2019 election only saw 22 percent participation.