Though voters have been turning out in record numbers across the country for this year’s presidential primary contests, it’s clear that University students weren’t nearly as excited about last week’s Michigan Student Assembly elections.
Just 2,426 students voted in the MSA president and vice president race – 4,489 fewer than in 2006. In 2003, nearly 6,000 more students voted than did this year.
MSA officials attributed the dismal turnout to a lack of party competition, a lack of publicity and a recent series of scandals within MSA.
Rackham student Michael Benson, who heads MSA’s Rules and Elections Committee, said the absence of a formidable second party in this year’s election contributed to low turnout. The Michigan Action Party’s candidates won about three times more votes than their opponents from the Defend Affirmative Action Party.
The 2006 election, in contrast, pitted Students 4 Michigan and the Michigan Progressive Party against each other in a competitive campaign that saw Students 4 Michigan win the presidency by a margin of only 300 votes. Benson said that was the why almost 8,000 students voted that year.
“I think that just like with the U.S. elections, the more competition people have, the more engaged people will be,” he said.
Ross School of Business junior Arvind Sohoni, the newly elected vice president of MSA, agreed.
“If we had another equally-sized party that was going to run a full slate, naturally that piques people’s attention a little more,” he said.
LSA junior Maricruz Lopez, who ran unsuccessfully as the vice presidential candidate for the Defend Affirmative Action Party, said a debate between the two presidential candidates would have increased voter turnout.
In 2007, the two presidential candidates participated in a debate on the student-run television station WOLV-TV. The station also held a debate two years ago but the tape was lost and the debate never aired.
Former MSA President Mohammad Dar argued that the lack of a debate had little to do with low voter turnout. He cited the 2006 election, pointing out that turnout was high even though the tape was lost.
Butch Oxendine, president of the American Student Government Association, said turnout is higher when students connect with the candidates face to face.
“The number one way Student Governments improve their voter turnout is by connecting with fellow students throughout the year, showing them that SG does something tangible that matters to them,” Oxendine said in an e-mail. “If it can prove that it is seeking their opinion and trying to serve fellow students, then SG has a chance of increasing voter turnout when elections roll around.”
Rackham student Kate Stenvig, who ran unsuccessfully as DAAP’s presidential candidate, said recent student government scandals influenced the lackluster turnout.
“I think that has to be because of a general distaste with MSA, because people are reading about scandal after scandal and people don’t really want to participate with it,” she said.
Sohoni agreed, saying the body needs to focus on regaining students’ trust.
“If students’ only interaction with MSA is everything we’ve done wrong, then students aren’t going to vote,” he said. “We have to make MSA something that students are proud to be involved in.”
Stenvig said campaign restrictions, like those on flyers advertising the election also play a role in turnout.
Lopez said she’s pushing MSA to change those rules for next year’s elections.
“Something that’s completely non-partisan, informing people that the elections are happening,” she said.