There’s been a lot of noise about campus politics the last few days, perhaps to compensate for the thundering silence from voters last week.
Voter turnout in this year’s Undergraduate Students Association Council election was a whimpering 26.5 percent, the lowest it’s been in the past 10 years. It’s gotten so bad, some candidates have even taken to violating voters’ privacy as an innovative engagement tool.
Voter turnout is not a new problem at UCLA. Over the past few years, the USAC Election Board has made consistent attempts to usher students to the polls. In addition to advertising around campus, the election board introduced an in-person polling booth this year to make voting even more accessible.
In the past, low voter turnout has also been blamed on lack of choice, as one or two slates have historically dominated elections. But this election offered more independent candidates than any in the past four years.
The problem isn’t the election. Voter turnout at UCLA has little to do with the number of bulletin reminders, political parties or polling places.
Instead, people likely don’t vote in USAC elections because they think the institution is ineffective and kind of pointless.
Take, for example, one of the more unorthodox candidates for USAC president this year, A.J. Goldsman. Goldsman stated quite plainly that his only goal was to shut USAC down. Running as an independent, his platform began, “The corrupt institution that is USAC must be disbanded and the power returned to us, the collective students of UCLA.” More than 780 students ranked him in their votes, which likely inflated the feeble turnout.
Goldsman seems to have a point. Outside of election week, the everyday student only seems to hear about USAC when it’s being naughty. And with another election scandal this year, involving a candidate violating a student voter’s right to privacy, public perception isn’t likely to improve.
Students will likely continue to avoid the polls because they simply don’t know or readily see what USAC does.
Aside from posting on Facebook, USAC seems to make itself visible exactly one week each year. During that week, despite terrorizing Election Walk with towering glamour headshots and cheeky video ads, not much is done to explain what these candidates want you to pick them to do. We’re given the candidates’ experience and their mission statements, but often know nothing about the capacities of their roles as student government officials.
True, there are official candidate statements. But like most political statements, they almost seem intentionally vague. And while there is a public debate each year, this appeals more toward candidates’ bases than to the average student.
But contrary to Goldsman’s proposals, USAC shouldn’t be disbanded. Student government representation can create productive communication with the administration and help fight for underrepresented communities’ needs. Hopefully, student voters will be engaged because they know these organizations matter and that who represents them makes a difference.
To be fair, voter turnout is a tough, if not impossible question. Hordes of political scientists have tried and failed to derive one-line intuitions to explain the apparent chaos. However, one prevailing notion that seems relevant is the idea of political efficacy, namely, people’s faith in government and the belief that their actions actually matter. And from students’ declining voter turnout, it’s clear USAC isn’t viewed by many as an honest and effective campus governing body.
There isn’t a simple solution to addressing this widely held perception.
Many people are not versed in the USAC bylaws and constitution. Like some USAC candidates, they haven’t read them. Perhaps USAC should hold town hall meetings multiple times each quarter so students have the opportunity to develop a working relationship with their representatives and find out exactly what they do.
Additionally, the election board could more clearly analyze and explain USAC’s budget and capacities so that voters know where their money is specifically going and what the stakes of each year’s elections are.
And perhaps, USAC candidates could simply be a little better behaved.
There’s no guarantee that these actions will cure voter apathy. But the fact remains: It’s not the election, but the elected body that students seem to be fed up with.
Voter turnout will improve when the system we’re voting for does too.