Ben Parker/Sun Senior Editor

In the lead up to elections, the SA is seeking new strategies to increase voter turnout.

April 22, 2021

S.A. Election Confront Low Turnout, Apathy With New Elections Director, Outreach

Print More

Following elections marred by low turnout, technological-failure-induced recount and complications regarding disqualification of candidates, the S.A. will hold it’s spring 2021 election from April 27-29 — with a new Elections Director at the helm. 

Responding to a 16.85 percent undergraduate turnout in the fall, and frequent scandals, Patrick Mehler ’23 is revamping voter turnout efforts, broadening candidate recruitment and diversifying the elections committee.    

During the last election, the election directors were limited to promoting engagement through email blasts to organizations and word of mouth because of the hybrid semester. The lack of campaign slogans written in chalk around campus, in-person campaigning and the importance of social media made running for office even harder this year, S.A. president Cat Huang ’21 said. 

But in February, the S.A.tapped Mehler as its new elections director. Mehler is the co-founder of Cornell Votes, who spent the fall and summer registering and educating voters for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. He is also a relative outsider to the S.A., having never been a member — which is unheard of in recent years. 

Mehler has had to deploy an array of new tactics because of physical distancing limitations on campus. He’s been recruiting candidates from spaces like the college of engineering, where national election voting data indicates that students typically don’t vote and working with campus leaders, like project team leads.

From project teams and class teaching assistants alone, Mehler said he’s contacted roughly 1,600 people about voting in the election.

Voter turnout operations have also changed, with Mehler utilizing the resources of Cornell Votes and using college deans, professors, department heads and student organization leaders to encourage the people in their networks to vote. 

On the physical side, posters and stickers have been put up everywhere from dining hall napkin holders to dorm TVs to COVID testing sites. 

Mehler has also changed the makeup of the elections committee by removing restrictions on who could serve on the 10-member body, and adding a representative from each college and more underclassmen.

The new committee has also clarified issues of candidate disqualification — if a challenge is launched before voting the candidate in question will be removed if the.However, if a challenge occurs after voting, then votes for the disqualified candidate are reallocated based on the preferential voting system as if the candidate had not been on the ballot in the first place. 

With these reforms, Mehler said that he’s not fighting disengagement but the feeling that students aren’t informed enough on the candidates to participate. 

“People might be frustrated with how specifically S.A. is acting but it’s rarely apathy. It’s usually either a lack of information, a lack of feeling informed enough to make a decision or just general confusion,” Mehler said.

According to Moriah Adeghe ’21, former director of elections and executive vice president, existing candidate-created resources lack accessible information, making it difficult to engage voters.

“Most people who don’t know much about the S.A. aren’t gonna take the time to read through forty candidates’ platform points and try to make a decision based on that,” Adeghe said.

Currently, the data driving these efforts isn’t from previous S.A. elections, but from the NSLVE report, an ongoing research project by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University, which tracks details of campus voting in national elections, such as which majors, demographics and home states vote the most.

Mehler targeted outreach to demographics that did not vote at high rates in the 2016 and 2018 national elections, like the College of Engineering. 

According to Mehler, more specific anonymous data on S.A. elections would make voter turnout efforts more effective because they would be more specific. 

Adeghe and Huangboth agreed that collecting anonymous demographic data could improve elections. 

Regardless of the year’s challenges, there’s been more interest. In fall 2020, nine out of 26 seats were contested and in spring 2021, 17 out of 26 seats are being contested.

Considering the number of races and the power held by the University’s shared governance institutions, Mehler feels that this election is just too important to miss. 

“These groups have a lot of power. And this is your chance to start over with them,” Mehler said. “There’s a lot of turnover happening in these elections, a lot of seniors are graduating, a lot of students are not returning to these assemblies and there’s a lot of new voices coming into the field. This is your chance to get in the voices that you want to hear.”