Ababiy: The campus voter turnout problem

A recent trend on campus has been declining voter turnout in student elections. We need to fix that.

Jonathan Ababiy

Around this time last year, The Daily Cardinal, a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reported that voter turnout for student elections at Madison had declined to around six percent.

Just 2,411 students out of 41,522 students had decided the Wisconsin’s next student government, which manages $51 million in University fees. 

Voter turnout declined by three percent at the University of Minnesota last year, even with a controversial referendum on campus and 10 years of voter turnout growth. There were only 4,405 undergraduate ballots cast. 

That was in 2018. This year, there were only 2,528 votes for the undergraduate campus elections. That is a dramatic drop in voter turnout, from 14.8 percent to just 8.4 percent. 

That is a problem. Although its power is limited on campus, the Minnesota Student Association is the closest thing students have to a voice representing them on campus, in administration and at the state level. Low voter turnout means MSA won’t look like the people it’s supposed to represent. 

As Katrina Rbeiz, a staffer at the Illinois Student Government, told The Daily Cardinal, “Not only would a low turnout hurt student government, but it would also hurt the student body.” 

At the University of Minnesota, MSA’s chief of staff James Farnsworth said, “I think the All Campus Elections Commission, in partnership with registered student government, is responsible for voter turnout.”

He noted that the campus-wide email reminding students to register as candidates for the elections was sent out by MSA — not ACEC — just a couple days before the election. ACEC had a marketing committee, but nobody really knew what it was doing to promote the elections. 

A candidate this election cycle echoed that. “People only know that elections are happening if they’re trying to be involved in it,” said Brayden Rothe, a second term at-large representative in MSA.

Although ACEC bears most of the responsibility for the decline, MSA isn’t absolved either. The past two years of decline align with a pool of candidates who were firm in MSA orthodoxy. The only kind of leaders we can get are ones that bubble up out of MSA. The sifting of the chaff is happening in MSA, so whatever wheat comes out is wheat MSA has chosen for us.

Voter turnout is always low on college campuses. The weakness of the youth vote seems to be one of the age-old facts inherent to American public life. But it’s a mistake to accept what we have now. 

Our voter turnout should be higher. A 2005 study by two political scientists from the University of Iowa found the average voter turnout in student elections was 18.8 percent. Most schools’ voter turnout was below 25 percent, but other schools’ elections were not as bad as elections are on our campus. 

Previous years saw better voter turnout. Voter turnout was more than 22.6 percent in 2017, and voter turnout was slightly higher in 2016 at more than 22.2 percent. Things can be different and voter apathy isn’t the norm. We were once above the average.

Our elections need to change. Voter turnout needs to improve. Until then, we’ll get what we vote for.