Low voter turnout at polls signals indifference

The annual College Council Spring House Elections passed with little fanfare this year and a paltry 16 percent of eligible voters participated. Due to the fact that 84 percent of the student body did not vote, College Council (CC) officers have discussed restructuring house representatives and have undertaken new initiatives to raise CC’s profile on campus.

After accounting for the recent numbers, statistics show that student participation in CC elections has dropped 30 percent in just two years, from 23 percent in Spring 2000 to 20 percent last year, to this year’s 16 percent. “For most positions, candidates were running unopposed,” said Steve Floyd ’02, all-campus CC representative. “Even when competition for certain spots existed, voter turnout was often in single digits.”

Also, 37 percent fewer students nominated themselves this year to run for the 17 house representative positions, down from 16 student last year to just 10 students this year.

Furthermore, only 2 houses, Pratt and Prospect, had legitimately contested elections in which more than one nominated candidate running. As a result, write-in candidates won in 11 (64 percent) of the housing units, with an average of 3.7 votes a piece.

“When people are winning houses by 5 votes or less it shows that people just don’t care about what is going on in the school and who is making some very important decisions affecting the student body,” said Matt Webster ’04, who made an unsuccessful bid for a house representative spot.

According to the CC minutes of last Wednesday, Joe Urwitz ’02, representing the West/Spencer housing unit, was “elected by five drunken friends.”

“I think that the Spring [House] Elections have always been difficult,” said Jonathan Pahl ’03, CC treasurer. “It is really unfortunate to get three members of Council who were elected by drunken friends [on write-in votes] as a joke.”

One positive outcome of the poor voter turnout is that it may allow students who really wish to serve on CC to do so, even though they may not win an election. “I ran for Pratt House Representative and lost,” said Matt Webster ’04, who is friends with Noah Coburn ’02, the write-in winner of the Bryant/Woodbridge housing unit. “[Noah] has a lot on his plate being a senior writing a thesis and other extracurricular activities. He heard that I wanted to be on council, lost my own house election and, since he has no desire to be a part of the Council, he offered the seat to me.”

The poor voter turnout this year can be attributed to three main factors: lack of publicity, lack of student interest and the busy lives of Williams students.

“The house elections that just passed exemplified the problems that plague not only College Council, but student government in general on this campus,” said Floyd. Many students were completely unaware that the elections were taking place.

Due to the lack of publicity for the elections, CC co-presidents Sarah Barger ’02 and Joe Masters ’02 extended the deadline for nominations in order to advertise the nomination process and encourage more students to run.

This confusion within CC over publicity for the elections continued when the JOSE (Judicious Online Secure Election) electronic voting system was active.

“Ideally, there should have been computers in Baxter,” said Floyd, who noted that installing voting computers in the Baxter mailroom has increased voter turnout in the past.

“The Spring what? I didn’t know who was running or that we even had elections,” said Maja Carr ’02 when asked if she had voted in the Spring CC House Elections.

Signs announcing the election were not posted around campus until the closing hours of the election.

“No one got the directive to do publicity and no one assumed responsibility for it,” said Ching Ho ’03, a CC all-campus representative. Ho is also a member of the CC elections committee and set up the elections on the JOSE online voting system.

General student apathy to CC-related events also plagued the elections process. Of those who knew of the elections, many decided not to vote in them.

“I knew about it, but it wasn’t really brought to the forefront of my attention,” said Flynn Boonstra ’04. “Part of the reason that I didn’t vote was because I didn’t understand what that would achieve. I still don’t really know what my house representative does.”

Boonstra’s view is a common one on campus, as many students are unaware of what College Council does.

“The students don’t know much about Council or they don’t care,” said Ho. “It’s definitely something we need to fix.”

Though house representatives are viewed as one of the least prestigious positions on CC, they play an important role in this body, as they make up a majority of CC membership.

“House representatives are the backbone of CC,” said Floyd. “Why is it that many people are willing to run for high profile positions, but not less glamorous, but equally powerful positions? The questions of motivation for me are the root of all problems covering campus governance now.”

The final key issue causing the poor turnout is that the lives of many Williams students are extremely busy. Jon Cartengena ’04, a house president, said that he tried unsuccessfully to get students from his house to run. “I can’t run because I don’t have the time,” he said, which was a common sentiment among the students who knew of the elections.

“The Record [on 1/22/02] claimed in their editorial that this lack of interest can be attributed to a lack of respect for College Council,” said Floyd. “I don’t think this is an accurate assumption. Last spring, one half of the campus turned out for a referendum [on JOSE]. Many qualified people ran for all campus, class and officer positions. So, at least a minimum amount of interest is clearly there.”

In looking towards the immediate future, Pahl believes that the problems that plagued the Spring House Elections will not occur during next month’s all-campus elections.

“The all-campus elections in March kind of take care of themselves since the positions are more hotly contested and candidates advertise for themselves,” said Pahl. “I think people care about these elections more.”

Though historical precedent suggests the student body will take interest and vote in the upcoming March elections, the CC leadership is working hard to prevent the problems of the Spring House Election from occurring again through a proposal of restructuring the house representative system and a series of initiatives to increase interaction.

Pahl believes that one possible solution to the problem of low voter turnout and student interest in house elections is to restructure the house representative institution. He also feels that CC should move from a house-based representative system to a quad-based system. Under his plan, several representatives will be elected to re
present all of the houses in a particular quad.

“I think that going to a quad-based system will help eliminate [some of the problems],” said Pahl.

For instance, instead of having one CC representative from each of the four Greylock Quad houses, Pahl believes the CC bylaws should be changed to have four students representing the entire Greylock Quad, irrespective of which specific Greylock building they live in.

In response to the disappointing voter turnout and student interest, CC leadership has already begun a series of initiatives aimed at strengthening representative-constituent interaction. Under the name “Opinions Unplugged,” various CC members have begun tabling in public areas and dining halls all around campus.

“I’d really like to see Council table at least once or twice a week in all of the main dining halls,” said Pahl, who added that he tabled two nights last week and received opinions and feedback from twenty students, primarily on the CUL proposal and general campus issues.

“I had hoped that kind of ‘in your face’ approach would have overcome any apathy,” said Floyd. “We talked to many people, informed many people, solicited opinions from many people, and changed many people’s minds. In that sense, it was effective and we will continue to do so [for] the rest of the year.”

The initial responses to Opinions Unplugged has been mixed.

“The response wasn’t as great as I had expected,” Floyd added. “[Apathy] compelled most people to walk right by. We cannot talk about change and improvements until the students actually want change and improvements. Will Allen ’02 and I will continue tabling one evening a week in a different dining hall on Tuesdays or Wednesdays to solicit opinions for Council meetings.”

Floyd and Allen will table in Driscoll Dining Hall this Wednesday night. Last night, Federico Sosa ’04 tabled in Goodrich and Barger and Pahl will be tabling in the Snack Bar tonight at 9:00 pm. The current topics for soliciting feedback include the CUL proposal, the Baxter redesign, addressing low voter and candidate turnout, the upcoming presentation of the Minority Coalition’s restructuring proposal, class rings, and upcoming SAC Events for Winter Carnival.

“During our administration, we wanted to, could have, and should have done more to foster interaction between representatives and constituents,” said Floyd. “We have made some efforts to engage the campus in dialogue, but we should have done much more.”

Another new way being introduced by CC to increase interaction is giving house representatives a working “Office Hours” budget. According to Pahl, each house representative will be given a $50 budget for the semester to use for “office-hours” type social gatherings to increase CC-student interactions. This project was first proposed by Webster during Winter Study and developed by Pahl and the other leaders of CC this past weekend.

“I feel that Council members don’t take enough active time to sit down and talk to students about Council issues,” said Ho, who hopes that interaction can be improved in the future. Finally, the officers of CC emphasized that they are only an email away. “We always encourage people to send opinions to opinions@wso.williams.edu,” said Pahl.

Though the CC leadership is working hard to the problems plaguing CC, one question that remains unanswered is the issue of ensuring that elections are adequately publicized. CC Bylaws state that “the [Elections Supervisory] committee shall be responsible for conducting and publicizing the elections.” However, the self-nominations for membership on the Elections Supervisory Committee’s were due on Feb. 8, 16 days after the Spring House Elections ended – the Committee does not presently have a chair.