A place for new ideas to settle.

29 April 2015

AS Elections 2015: Why Do We Even Bother

I.

It's election time yet again at Western Washington University, and times are desperate. Last year, a scant seven percent of the student body voted in the election. Where did it go wrong? The last couple times I wrote about student electoral politics at WWU, things got a bit... lively. Hopefully this starts a discussion as well!

The 2014 election marks the third straight year of precipitous decline, it should be noted. (The linked Western Front article implies that the decline started in 2012, but actually the turnout in 2011 was the peak.) Now we have this bizarre twist in the 2015 AS Presidential race:
[AS Presidential Candidate Belina] Seare is now running unopposed after her one opponent, AS Communications Director Josie Ellison, announced the end of their campaign Tuesday, April 21.

[...]

Ellison attended the debate and voiced support for Seare.

“The position was something that I was interested in doing, something I thought I could do well,” they said. “When Belina signed up, it gave me a chance to step back from that decision and decide whether I want to do it if I knew there was someone else that could do the job really well.”
Somehow I think "My friend decided to run for office and I know she's qualified so I won't run any more" defeats the point of having an election, especially if the candidates are equally matched and mutually supportive. 

Elsewhere in the article, Seare discusses her view on the lack of participation.
“This is kind of a challenging, and I think it reflects on a larger issue that students are not finding the Associated Students representing them,” Seare said.

Seare got her start in the AS as a freshman in the Black Student Union and the African-Caribbean Club before serving as Assistant Coordinator in the Social Issues Resource Center.

[...]

“I think [lack of representation] has to do with student autonomy. I also think that students who hold marginalized identities are silenced on this campus,” [Seare] said. “But the nature of being one person is that I don’t know what the largest issue on this campus is. I’m willing to hear what people think the largest issue is.”
It's a good point and Seare more directly called out Ellison for dropping the race, as quoted in the Western Front op-ed from the same edition:
At last night’s Associated Students Presidential Forum, candidate Belina Seare opened by stating that the fact that she is running unopposed is indicative of a huge issue with a lack of involvement with the AS by Western students.

In her own words, “Students are not finding the Associated Students representing them and they are not having access to this space, which allows them to have confidence and advocate for themselves.”

[...]

As Western students, we are all part of the Associated Students through fees we pay as part of our tuition. However, it feels as though there is a divide between those who work within the AS and the rest of the student body. Many students are not aware of what the AS does, let alone how they can get involved.

Uncontested elections, which in 2015 are five out of seven of them, are less a choice of representation than an ultimatum. In previous years we saw two, three, or as many as five or six candidates jostling for the same position, each fielding their ideas about what the Associated Students of WWU should do in the coming year. Now it's essentially a single-party system, where the candidate is chosen behind closed doors and you can either vote them in or watch them get voted in.

Add in the fact that the candidates have come from decreasingly diverse political backgrounds and it's small wonder that students seem to not want to bother. Rumors of the elections being more or less a smokescreen for AS-internal popularity contests have swirled for years now. That may be a bit too cynical, but I think it's evident that something is wrong with how the AS does business, and that it's been getting worse year over year.

II.

Let's dig in to this behemoth. First up: voter turnout. As I mentioned in passing, voter turnout for the AS elections has been declining since a peak at 29% in 2011. Behold, the journalistic evidence:

http://www.westernfrontonline.net/news/article_bcd9f7e6-dab6-11e3-83cc-0017a43b2370.html
About 7 percent of Western’s 13,645 students voted in the recent Associated Students elections, continuing a trend of low voter turnout, according to the election results on the AS website.

Voter turnout has been dropping since 2012. That year, 22 percent of students voted in the election, while last year, 2013, 16 percent of students turned out to vote, said Mason Luvera, AS communications director.
I crunched some numbers on my own and got a higher estimated turnout for 2012, but there seems to be a difference between Spring quarter enrollment and eligible voters. Part-time students perhaps? Regardless, it's bad: an average decline of 8 percentage points per year. And yet 2011 was a particularly good year:
[AS Elections Coordinator Remy] Levin said this year’s [2011] election had the highest voter turnout in 18 years, with 3,850 students participating.

Almost 30 percent of students participated in the election, the second-highest percentage of eligible voters in AS election history. The most was 33 percent in 1993, Levin said.

Furthermore, there were a record 26 candidates in this election, the most in Western’s history.

Reviewing the numbers for the three elections prior to 2011, things had been improving, about 6 percentage points per year by my calculations. Maybe this is just a regular six-year oscillation, and things will pick up again over the next three years? Well, maybe, but I know Remy Levin: he almost certainly worked his ass off getting people to run for office, and everyone else to vote in the election. I don't think there's that rigid of an iron law that some hard work and solid infrastructure couldn't bend the trend line upward.

Certainly none of the candidates over the years seem to think so. Nobody in their interviews or debates ever said "eh, I think there's sort of a natural ebb and flow to student participation and it's always going to be sub-50%, no big deal you guys." For years and years the conversation has been about diversity and representation:
Abby Ramos is running for Vice President for Diversity [for 2015–2016], which is responsible for ensuring all AS processes and offices have a commitment to diversity and inclusivity, while also focusing on providing a safe space for all students. [...] “My goal is to broaden the idea of what diversity means to people,” Ramos said.
It was a "major topic" in last year's Presidential debates:
Each candidate agreed that increasing awareness and accessibility and encouraging involvement from first and second year students would help increase overall involvement.
[...]

Candidates made several references to expanding student awareness as a key to success.

A commonly used word during the debate was “advocate.” In answering each question, candidates referred to themselves as advocates for Western students, making decisions based on students’ needs and wants rather than their own.
It was a "main concern" during the 2013 Presidential debates:
“An effective way to encourage communication between the general student body and the Board of Directors is by having an approachable board of Directors,” [Cody] Brower said.

[...]

“I would like us to digress completely from destructive fossil fuels, or to do so in the next few years,” [Patrick] Stickney said.

[...]

“I want to find more ways in which students can express new ideas and ways in which they can enhance their own academic experience,” [Glen] Tokola said.

Each candidate made points of better connecting the student body with the AS, faculty and staff at Western.

“I don’t believe, as the board, we are what matters to the AS. What matters are the programs involved and what matters are the students getting their voices heard,” Stickney said.

Last year, the AS Pravda Review interviewed the AS Elections Coordinator and AS Communications Director about their thoughts on the decline in turnout, as well as potential ways for improvement:
Q&A with Nic Doherty, AS Elections Coordinator

Do you have a personal opinion as to why students did not vote this year?

I feel like students this year were less concerned with the issues on the ballot as far as referendums go. Usually when something like fee increases are included we see a lot of turnout. This year there weren’t any of those measures. I think another problem though is that students generally don’t know what the AS board positions do.

What do you think can be done in the future to increase voter engagement?

I think making the Board of Directors into an organization with higher profiles. Further, the demonstrative lack of student engagement in AS events is something that we need to address as an organization.
Q&A with Mason Luvera, AS Communications Director

[...] For next year we are going to try and utilize our office to communicate with the elections director and emphasize the importance of elections and what the board members do. What we realized this year is that we spent a lot of time telling students to get out there and vote, but not explaining what they were voting for.
This is a recurring theme: lack of knowledge about the AS Board, together with lack of diverse student representation and engagement. It's not hard to imagine a vicious cycle here, where students generally become disillusioned with the AS, which only leads to the AS devoting itself to increasingly insular programming and initiatives.

And when I say "recurring," I mean "this has been the case for at least a decade and a half." Witness this Western Front article from 2001:

Jonathan Perez, candidate for vice president for Diversity, said he wanted a more comprehensive interpretation of diversity in order to encourage a "plurality of voices" among students.

"When you flash around the word 'diversity' on campus, most students feel that it boils down to ethnicity, gender and issues of sexuality," Perez said. "While I feel those three issues are important, I think diversity can be extended even further."
The Front also did a few student-on-the-street interviews. Guess what they heard:
Western students say they support what the Associated Students board of directors has done during the past year, but they just don't know what it is.

"I remember at freshman orientation they were there," freshman Megan Bloom said. "I think that's the only time I've seen them."

"It seems like because (Western's) such a big school it's hard to get recognition, and it's hard to get connected," freshman Kim Larson said.

At the time Western had about three thousand fewer students than it does now. And yet the key issues as reported by the Front were still lack of knowledge about the AS Board, together with lack of diverse student representation and engagement.

III.

Let's return to the candidate pledges. Diversity and empowerment were the watchwords, and indeed this seems to be working—for example there was only one white guy on the Board this year. That's really unusually diverse if you compare to a random sample, where you expect about 4 or 5 white students, 1 or 2 students of color, and maybe 1 Hispanic student. And a male to female ratio of about 3 to 4.  So on that metric things seem pretty good, and judging by the slate of candidates this year it wasn't a fluke.

On the other hand, if only 7% of the student body votes in the election, then at best (for diversity's sake) it's because only students of color voted, at 2011 rates. At worst, you really do have a lack of diverse student representation and engagement, despite all superficial appearances.

This, too, can be fit to the narrative: students are being marginalized, they're being silenced. Okay, maybe, but is there any voter-turnout scenario where we can conclude that something else is at work? Why wouldn't six women of color on the AS Board stir at least women students of color to vote and participate? That should still be something like 12% of the student body, assuming literally nobody else appreciates a diverse AS Board—which is clearly absurd, given by the enthusiastic allyship of many white students, for example.

Oh, and since students vote online, in the privacy of their own rooms if so desired, how could they possibly be marginalized or silenced? There's no physical polling place to scare them away from!

The looming hypothesis here is, of course, apathy and disillusionment. What does the AS do that could possibly engender that sort of response in students? I'll examine some cases in the next part. Until then, I invite all comments, critiques, additions, and questions!

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