Voter apathy undermines Swarthmore student politics

Emma Waitzman/The Phoenix
Emma Waitzman/The Phoenix

Held this past Saturday, the Student Council Fall 2011 Emergency Elections garnered ballots from only about 250 people. Perhaps one could generously argue that the low voter turnout was due to the fact that it was only an “emergency” election being held to fill positions that weren’t filled last spring. But thanks to the use of Moodle as the primary means of polling, the minimal public campaigning on the part of the candidates and the irony that a lack of urgency was present even during an “emergency election,” voter turnout in these fall elections was only about 50% of what it was in last spring’s elections (a slightly more substantial 420 people).

But it’s time for the apathy to end.

How are we to expect anything at all from our student representatives when we don’t practice our political efficacy in the simplest, most potent way imaginable? We then have no right to blame them for not living up to campaign promises made in the fervor and spirit of electioneering. Or even for not finishing the job when it comes to much-discussed initiatives, from trying to get our meal cards to work at restaurants in the Ville to teaming up with the engineering department to construct a shiny brand-new gazebo somewhere to any other impressively ingenious initiative that has yet to be dreamed up. Accountability is a two-way street — we must exercise our right to vote in order to expect anything from whoever gets elected.

In addition to holding these representatives responsible for their promises, we must also be critical of their qualifications. To elect first-years (new Student Groups Advisor Lanie Schlessinger and Student Events Advisor Aya Ibrahim), whether by choice or by default, over seasoned Swatties to Student Council positions is to risk the fact that these students may not be well-versed enough in representative logistics at Swarthmore. While we don’t doubt the intelligence, energy or organizational skills of these candidates, we do — justifiably — question whether or not they know the school well enough to be in such positions of leadership just yet. When voters don’t become more wholly involved in this process, inexperience — an otherwise innocuous factor — could potentially paralyze progress. We need to be more critical of candidates’ qualifications, more conscious of the reality that freshmen have only been at Swarthmore for a month.

Where some may feel that voting is a futile chore, others can see that there have been legitimate student movements in the past that demonstrate just how powerful a group of voters can be. For example, members of the Intercultural Center, Black Cultural Center (IC/BCC) and some activist groups formed a voter coalition in the spring of 2010 as a way to provide support for certain Student Council candidates. Their coalition was successful in winning all but one position for those candidates as it emphasized a concern for the lack of competition and diversity in Student Council.

This might explain why the spring 2010 elections saw such a significant voter turnout — a grassroots effort that underscores a dialogue between representatives and the represented is a strategy that resonates with students. Voters want their potential delegate to reach out and engage them in meaningful discourse. This idea manifested itself in Tramane Hall’s win of the presidency over Ben Hattem ’12. His write-in campaign was conducted entirely via Facebook and emails to friends. Like the IC/BCCcoalition, Hall courted friends and student groups in which he participated for support, ultimately thwarting notably experienced Hattem. But with only about 340 voters casting ballots in the election, how can we assume that nearly 1,200 students would have also voted for Tramane? Any discontent with Student Council among students today would be unwarranted — to opt out of our right to vote is to also concede our right to complain.

So, how do we improve the system?

On Student Council’s part, paper ballots can be provided to voters, delivered straight to each mailbox. This method has precedence: This year’s senior class officer elections pulled in 184 ballots — about half of the senior class. Moodle is complicated and somewhat obscure among more pressing documents (syllabi and class readings), while paper ballots harken back to a traditional view of the political process, one that values civic engagement.

On our behalf, we can begin to vote. Voting not only means that you have faith in the candidate you voted for, it also means that you have faith in the system. Once we employ our representative voice, positions will be more highly-considered, which will lead more people to run for office and thus eliminate the need for emergency elections. This might increase competition among candidates and allow for more comprehensive platforms. Otherwise, we face a vicious cycle: when students are not confident in their Student Council, they fail to vote, which allows for the arbitrary election of inexperienced candidates for office, which means that Student Council’s effectiveness in student affairs is inadequate, which means that students are just not going to vote. This is a fruitless and preventative process that could be counteracted simply by casting one’s vote.

We cannot let voter turnout in Student Council elections at Swarthmore continue to be an issue. In order to view ourselves as informed and active citizens of our school, our country and our world, we must first become informed and active citizens of our school, our country and our world. Circular reasoning that is necessary for the survival of democracy on this small scale — apathy has no place among us.

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