Apathy toward MSA elections unlikely to change soon

Tracy Ellingson

This year’s Minnesota Student Association elections proved once again that when it comes to voting for the University’s student leaders, apathy always wins.
This year’s president and vice president-elect, Jigar Madia and Bridgette Murphy, received 931 of 1792 votes cast in the election, or about 6 percent of the eligible student vote.
Last year, only 13 percent of the undergraduate student body voted for Helen Phin and Eric Hanson, who on May 15 will relinquish their posts.
What these numbers suggest is that students at the University might not know or care about electing student leaders each spring to represent their interests.
In general, most people do not vote unless they feel they have an investment in the results of an election, said Charles Backstrom, a retired University political science professor.
“Just judging from what we see around is that most of the students think that MSA does not do anything important,” Backstrom said.
“Student leaders have had ready access to the president and other decision makers, so MSA is not as futile as (voters) think, but that’s the attitude that people have — that it doesn’t matter.”
Student elections at Big Ten schools, including the University, compare miserably to national presidential elections, which average only about 50 percent.
Most Big Ten schools consistently struggle to get more than 10 or 15 percent of their student body out to vote.
At the University of Michigan about 17 percent of its 35,000 students voted this year in student government elections; at the University of Iowa only 7 percent voted. Penn State University has consistently averaged a voter turnout of about 13 percent.
University of Iowa Student Government Vice President-elect Meghan Henry said she believes students tend to be apathetic toward student government because they don’t think the system affects them.
“They don’t necessarily realize the behind-the-scenes work, and I think if they did more students would vote,” Henry said.
Although students might be apathetic, they might also be too busy to vote. Stopping by voting polls and standing in line might be just enough of a nuisance to prevent students from fulfilling their civic duties.
Stephanie Souter, a staff member with the University of Michigan’s student association, said her school’s voter turnout increased by about 2,000 people this year because students can now vote on the World Wide Web.
“(Students), for the most part, were happy with it because they were able to vote anytime, in the middle of the night or whenever,” Souter said. “They were just able to login and vote.”
But Backstrom said he thinks electronic voting will not significantly increase voter turnout.
“If people care, they do it. If I say, ‘I’m too tired to go, or I’m too sick or I have a headache,’ it means you don’t care enough to (vote),” Backstrom said.
University All-Campus Commission Chairwoman Kristen Burke said she is optimistic the University will have electronic voting by next year. She plans to continue working to implement the program.
“We have a lot of support now from the administration and the Campus Involvement Center,” Burke said.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily the voter turnout this year that’s the driving force behind it so much as just trying to keep up with technology and trying to make it accessible,” she added.
The biggest obstacle in bringing online voting to campus is the cost, Burke said. Implementing an online voting system would cost about $45,000, she added.
The commission hopes to fund the new system either from a grant from the Coca-Cola Corporation or from the University. However, some of the one-time cost might have to come out of the Student Services Fees.
One of the benefits to using the online service, which students would access just as they do class registration, is that it would eliminate the problem of double voting.
Double voting in the past may have skewed the results of several MSA elections.
The University’s campus elections turned out its largest percentage of voters in 1971, when 25 percent of the student body reported to have cast a ballot.
MSA presidential candidate and law school student Jack Baker took the election with 2,766 of the 6,024 votes cast.
According to a 1971 Minnesota Daily article, however, students who voted would’ve had no problem voting a second or even a third time in that year’s election.
“It was easy to get a ballot to vote in the all-campus election,” wrote reporter Steve Brandt, who explained that he received five ballots. “All one needed was a fee statement — your own or anyone else’s,” he wrote.
This year, in order to ensure a more legitimate election process, the commission placed tighter restrictions on polling locations. Students could only vote at one of the eight assigned polling stations designated by the colleges they attend.
Before the election, commission members speculated, correctly, that the restrictions would mean turnout percentages would decrease from last year.
Although the change appeared to create a fair election process, it also caused an annoyance for some students.
“I heard a lot of people that had to be turned away or told to go somewhere else, they grumbled and said, `I don’t have any time. Last year I could vote anywhere. Why can’t I now?'” Burke said.
Results show the University’s lowest turnout for a student government election took place in 1994, when President and Vice President-elect Sheila Corbett and Marc Paulson received about 4 percent of the possible student vote.
The following year, a student group called Green Eggs and Hamas ran a campaign for cartoon-character Homer Simpson as a write-in candidate. At the time Corbett said she thought the ploy might benefit the election by creating more student interest.
“I had less votes than the average undergraduate has credits, so anything’s possible” Corbett said in a 1995 Minnesota Daily article. “Anything that can cause people to pay attention to elections is a good thing.”
Corbett’s vice president didn’t agree. Paulson said in another Daily article that a vote for Simpson was a vote for apathy.
But good or bad, University students continue to pass the Simpson legacy down each year. This year 22 of the 1,862 students casting ballots voted for Simpson with several different running mates.