In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, both the college itself and student-run clubs have adamantly promoted registering to vote and making plans to vote either in person or through mail in ballots. President Valerie Smith sent out an email reminding students to vote, Get Out The Vote spent weeks tabling to help students register to vote, and SwatDems sent out text messages to provide students with information about their polling places (with the added convenience of signs put up to guide people to voting places and vans transporting students to and from where they need to vote).
While this type of civic engagement is essential, it does point out a glaring inconsistency in our campus: we don’t have anywhere near this same level of commitment in voting for our own Student Government Organization (SGO) representatives. For a student body that is so outspoken about the importance of voting and other forms of civic engagement, it is notable that this commitment does not extend to the democracy of our own campus.
In comparison to the fervor around state and national elections, the elections on campus for SGO representatives get very little attention. In the 2020 national presidential election, an estimated 75.9% of the eligible student body voted. In this year’s elections for SGO President and Vice President, SGO released data in an email to the student body that showed only about 25% of the student body voted for the president position. The drop-off is even more substantial for senate races, where only 267 students voted this year (about 16% of the student body).
Engagement with SGO elections is even more dismal when you actually look at the races for SGO seats. In the senate races, all candidates, except those for the class of 2026, ran unopposed. This lack of competition meant that for candidates for the classes of 2025, 2024, and 2023, the actual option that won in the election was “no preference.”
Part of the reason for this lack of campus civic engagement could be due to the uncompetitive nature of SGO elections. Even when candidates run opposed, they only face off against one other opponent, and the elections aren’t close enough to incite the student body to vote. For example, the current president and vice president of SGO, Connor Barrett and Devon Ayambem, won against one other challenger bid in a decisive victory with 66% of the votes.
The lack of candidates running for SGO, coupled with the apathy towards the elections, has ultimately led to SGO becoming just simply a club of people, and not a true representation of the Swarthmore student body. This year, SGO hasn’t even filled all of the required positions stipulated by their constitution (and how many of us even knew SGO had a constitution?). SGO should have three senators from each academic year and eight senators elected at large. This year, SGO has two senators for the classes of 2023 and 2025, three senators for the class of 2024 and 2026, and only five at-large senators. The executive board is also missing one of its nine members: the campus climate member.
At other schools, the position of student government representative is a coveted title that comes with a lot of responsibility and accountability. Races are tight, and all of the positions are filled each year. Here at Swarthmore, very few people seem to care who is president, senator, or even in SGO. Our campus government has become a group of people that happened to run unchallenged or were voted in by a majority of only a handful of their fellow students.
This apathy around elections for SGO also means that candidates are not held to the platforms they run on. Our current president and vice president ran on a campaign where they promised laser tag, faculty dunk tanks, technology grants to incoming FLI students, and so much more.
Multiple senators ran on platforms promising to increase dining options on campus, especially vegan, vegetarian, or allergen-free dining options, and to host more fun campus events. We should be holding our elected officials to these promises if they are going to premise their campaigns on them. We should be demanding some sort of accountability from SGO to follow through on these campaign promises so that elections and platforms actually mean something.
At a school that cares as much about democracy and voting as Swarthmore does, our lack of engagement with our own student government is unacceptable. We should all know who is running, and we should all know what power each position in SGO holds. Moreover, SGO should also be able to fill all of their constitutionally required positions because we should have students who care enough to run for them.
We should also care about SGO positions because our student government, contrary to some of the beliefs on campus, does have the power to make big decisions on campus. One essential part of SGO’s job on campus is to allocate the Student Activities Budget in tandem with SBC. If you don’t like how much money your club was allocated this year, you should care about who is elected as your representative. SGO is also supposed to facilitate campus-wide discussions and host events for student engagement. If you feel like there is a problem on campus that is not being addressed, or you don’t like the student engagement activities on campus, you should care about SGO elections.
Prior to COVID shutting down campus, SGO also had significantly more tangible power on campus. Their website shows that in 2019, SGO gave out $20,000 worth of SEPTA tickets to low-income students and $8,000 worth of tickets to art museums. They also kickstarted FLI, hosted a lecture series and town halls, installed ping-pong tables in each dorm, and had dogs brought to campus.
The SGO of today does not have this type of active, communicated commitments that the organization appeared to have prior to COVID, and they have become somewhat of a less formal group. But that should be just another reason why we should care about who’s on SGO. We should demand more from our representatives. We should hold our representatives accountable for what they promise us. And we should have enough candidates in elections — and enough voters — that SGO positions are filled with the best nominees, and not just whoever happened to put their name in or convinced their friends to vote for them.
In SGO’s defense, the apathy around electing representatives does not fall entirely on them. SGO sends out email reminders to vote in each election cycle and sends out the platform each candidate is running on. They also have, in the past year, tried to engage with the student body more, like sending out the dorm improvement survey.
On the other hand, however, SGO can be doing more. They should publish their own meeting minutes on their website to be transparent to the student body, be more candid about the decisions they are making, and update their website from 2019 to communicate their current initiatives. Wyatt Brannon ’26 (Instagram handle: senatorbrannon) is a prime example of the type of work SGO should be doing. He posts on a dedicated Instagram page to update students on what SGO is doing, and even holds office hours so students can come to him with concerns.
Ultimately, however, the Swarthmore student body should also take responsibility for the lack of attention paid to SGO. Some of the efforts that clubs and organizations put into registering students to vote could also help promote SGO elections.
The Swarthmore student body needs to start voting in SGO elections, know who our representatives are and what power they hold, and hold people accountable for the platforms that put them in power.