Low voter turnout in CSG elections motivates newly elected to increase student engagement

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 5:22pm

This year’s Central Student Government elections saw significantly lower numbers of voter participation in comparison to recent years. According to an email interview from Public Policy senior Jacob Pearlman, the CSG election director, a total of 7,989 students, or 17.9 percent of the student body, voted in this year's presidential and vice-presidential election. In 2016, voter turnout came in at 19.1 percent of the student body, while in 2015, 20.1 percent of students voted.

Engaging with the student body has been a priority for CSG in recent years, especially considering the fact that many students attribute their decision not to vote to a lack of knowledge of what CSG is and what specific actions the body takes throughout the year. For LSA sophomore Chang Yang, this year’s CSG elections were not something she felt was very prevalent around campus.

“I just felt very disconnected, to be honest, from the CSG campaigns to begin with,” Yang said. “They were just some things that kind of happened in the background. I would have to see more of how much CSG plays in the roles or the effects it has on the actual student body, or how effective it is in doing things for me, to care more about voting in their elections.”

Pearlman agreed that this sort of unfamiliarity from students with their governing bodies has provided reason for them not to take part in elections. He also highlighted instances in which students made their decisions not to vote based on issues they may have encountered with previous administrations.

“Low turnout could be attributed to students' disenchantment with the outgoing CSG leadership,” he said. “I've talked to countless students who felt as though the promises made last year to bring more transparency and inclusivity to CSG went unfulfilled — and it made students feel as though their voice and vote did not matter this year.”

When it came to the voting process itself, Pearlman explained that a campus-wide email was sent to students to let them know the polls had opened. These polls, which were available at vote.umich.edu, were open for 48 hours. Once they closed, results were automatically tallied online and CSG members filtered out ballots from unenrolled students and, according to Pearlman, the ballots “which were deemed vulgar or inappropriate.”

For some students, this format is what drew them away from voting, as they had never heard of many of the candidates until it came time to vote and their names were displayed on the website.

When explaining this concern, Yang referred to the 2016 CSG presidential election in which student groups from across campus gathered on the Diag, handing out flyers and discussing with students why they should vote for one candidate or another. For her, this sort of face-to-face communication made it much easier to identify all the candidates and their policies, and to make a decision partly based on conversation with her peers.

“I think it would actually be even better to do an old-fashioned voting style where you see the people rather than email,” Yang said. “I know a lot of people who voted, but they just kind of clicked because they didn’t really know who either or any of the people they voted for were.”

This type of direct contact with voters, however, was something that eMerge, whose presidential and vice-presidential candidates won the election with a total of 5,856 votes, and who garnered seats for all 38 of their candidates for nine schools and colleges, prioritized throughout the election season.

LSA junior Cassie Fields, the eMerge communications director, stated that though this year there were not as many parties relying on face-to-face campaigning, with other parties such as Movement more heavily prominent on social media, eMerge could be seen in the days leading up to the election engaging directly with passerby throughout the campus.

“Typically you see two or more big parties that are running a full slate or lots of candidates and they have people out on the Diag,” she said. “We definitely made sure that we had our candidates out there every day meeting people and we definitely made sure that we got people to turn out and vote for us.”

Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Amanda Kuo was compelled to take part in the elections to support one of her friends who ran as an independent for a representative slot. When asked if she would have voted had her friend not been running, she responded with “probably not.”

“She worked very hard in sending people links, in giving them directions on how to vote and why they should vote for her specifically, and what she would do,” Kuo said. “Had I not had all that information, even when I received the email, I probably would have just ignored it because I frankly have no idea what student government does.”

LSA senior Lauren Kay ran as the vice presidential candidate for the Defend Affirmative Action Party, and accused the election process of failing to engage students not already "CSG insiders" in an email interview.  

"The low turnout at CSG elections this year and most years...is symptomatic of the irrelevance of CSG in its current form," they wrote. "I must also wonder how many students who are working class and/or people of color voted given most parties' disappointingly small-scale responses to the lack of economic and racial integration on this campus." 

LSA junior Evan Rosen, presidential nominee for the Movement party, agreed elections were irrelevant to the majority of the student body.

"I'd probably say that everyone is pretty tired of politics and also everybody is too busy to care about a CSG when they think it doesn't affect them," he wrote in an email interview. "There's not enough hours in the day for students to sleep, let alone look into CSG candidates."

Even after the campaigning and the work candidates do to promote their platforms takes place, students simply don’t feel connected to the administration. Fields acknowledged this is an issue and explained it is one eMerge looks to improve throughout its term.  In order to help alleviate issues of student engagement Fields explained LSA junior Anushka Sarkar and Public Policy junior Nadine Jawad, president-elect and vice-president-elect, respectively, will be seen on the Central Campus and North Campus Diags on their first days in office talking directly with students.

As expressed by Kuo, finding ways to popularize CSG and reach the entire student body will be most crucial for future representatives to increase voter turnout, as well as encourage more students to get involved in the body that works to have a direct effect on their campus and their years at the University of Michigan.

“There are videos and televised versions of discussions between politicians, our national politicians, so if we’re talking professionally the same thing should be happening with our Central Student Government,” she said. “I think that way the people who not only are involved, but the people who care will find a way to be a part of it even if they don’t want to be a representative or in a place of power.”