The University of Michigan’s 2019 Central Student Government voter turnout ranked fourth highest across Big Ten schools, according to The Michigan Daily’s analysis of voting trends in student government elections.
The Daily analyzed Winter 2019 — the most recent executive ticket election — data for 13 of the Big Ten schools. The University of Illinois student government was not included because voting data could not be obtained.
On the high end for the Winter 2019 student government elections, 16.4 percent of University of Nebraska undergraduates voted. The lowest voter turnout rate was at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where 2 percent of undergraduate students voted.
From 2015 to 2017, voter turnout for CSG elections fell steadily from 20.1 percent to 17.9 percent but jumped to 23.9 percent in 2018. In 2019, the figure declined to approximately 11.9 percent.
Based on this data, if rankings were based on the 2018 election as opposed to the 2019 election, the CSG voter turnout would have been approximately 50 percent more than the next highest school. Instead, because of the double-digit drop, it was fourth.
As deputy elections director during the Winter 2019 election and elections director for the Fall 2019 election, Law student Austin Del Priore administered and advertised the elections. He said he and his team handed out flyers on the Diag and emailed the student body to encourage students to vote.
“I think that generally … the more executive tickets you have running, the more likely you’re to see higher voter turnout,” Del Priore said. “So I think in (the Winter 2019) election, there were actually fewer executive tickets than had been to go in past years and so I think that we speculated that that was a large driver of lower turnout.”
The University’s student turnout rate for Central Student Government elections counters voting trends for national elections. University student voter turnout rate for the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections were about 45 percent and 41 percent respectively — two to four times the turnout in the Central Student Government elections of those same years.
For Michigan State’s student government, the Associated Students of Michigan State, executives are elected through ASMSU representatives rather than by direct election by the student body. ASMSU President Mario Kakos attributed the low voter turnout rate at his school to the structure of ASMSU elections and the $100 cap on candidate campaign expenditures.
“The idea behind (the spending caps) is to ensure that it’s equitable for anyone who wants to run for any position. So you’re not going to see people passing out 1,000 buttons. You’re not going to see any yard signs,” Kakos said. “I personally don’t believe that student engagement will be something that is ever really achieved.”
CSG’s compiled code allows individual candidates to spend $150 of personal funds on their campaigns, while executive tickets can spend up to $500. The code also limits the amount students can donate to candidates. Individual candidates are only allowed $75 per donor, while executive tickets are permitted $250. Further, a donor can contribute no more than $500 in a particular election.
Aneesh Deshpande, spring elections committee chair of Rutgers University Student Assembly attributed the drop of their turnout from 12 percent in 2018 to 2 percent in 2019 to a lack of competition in the latter year. He further highlighted that Rutgers, being a primarily commuter school, witnesses low turnout rates because the majority of students live off-campus.
However, Jared Long, internal vice president of University of Nebraska’s student government, credited their high voter turnout to their focus on issues that solely concern students, something he said distinguishes them from other student governments that tend to focus on issues on which they have little impact, like immigration.
“A lot of other Big Ten student governments focus on a lot of hot-button issues, things that really parallel the American government and the American political system,” Long said. “And while, of course, we all as engaged students have options in regards to what policies are happening at the national level, we at Nebraska avoid those hot-button issues, which I think results in the fact that we are not alienating large parts of the student body.”
Long also spoke about the importance of student participation in the activities of their school’s student government through voting and the necessity of increasing voter turnout. He said he did not expect his school to be the highest at 16 percent, conceding that it is not a turnout rate to be proud of.
“Unfortunately, student government is not something students take interest in when they really should,” Long said. “When administrators are tackling a problem and they want student input, they turn to student government members. So student government is the easiest way to get connected with the university administration. For that reason alone, I think people should take an interest in student government.”
Jinwook Hwang, the University of Maryland Student Government Association’s director of communication, credited their high voter turnout to consistently competitive elections as well as the ticket system. Hwang said few other schools use the ticket system, in which four students can run together on a unified ticket.
“UMD’s voter turnout was unique in the fact that people don’t really see double-digit turnout but it was possible for us mainly because there was a lot of competition,” Hwang said. “We had three different teams running against each other and so the competition was advanced when candidates started to reach out to communities that usually did not get reached out to.”
Public Health junior Grace Sleder didn’t vote in the Winter 2019 elections. She attributed her decision to a lack of information about the issues and candidates’ platforms.
“I think in my freshman year I voted, but it’s only because I knew someone who was running,” Sleder said. “For a presidential election, you wouldn’t just vote based on who you think has the best sounding name or something, you want to be informed on the issues, and I just don’t feel like I’m informed enough to make a good decision or vote.”
She said she wishes there was a better system to learn about what each candidate was running on and what voting for them meant, such as including the candidates’ platforms on the email the elections director sends to the student body informing them of the elections.
On the other hand, Public Policy junior Bryce Brannen voted in 2019 CSG elections after she found out about them through current President Ben Gerstein’s Facebook page, who was running at the time, and saw posters of other party candidates. Brannen said voting was essential for her as the work CSG does directly impacts her day-to day-life as a student.
“I think voting is important no matter how small or how big (the government is),” Brannen said. “Voting obviously makes a difference and is a great way to have your voice be heard and make sure that there are people who are representing you that you ideally agree with.”
Reporters Navya Gupta and Julia Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.