USAC election voter turnout increases with referendums on ballot, online format
By Genesis Qu
May 13, 2020 10:29 p.m.
This post was updated May 14 at 4:05 p.m.
Voter turnout for the Undergraduate Students Association Council 2020 election nearly doubled from last year.
Voter turnout jumped from 16.18% to 30.06% in an election in which 30 candidates competed for the 15 positions, compared to 16 total candidates last year. Additionally, only six of the 15 seats were uncontested this year, as opposed to nine in 2019.
The presence of referendums on the ballot may have incentivized students to vote, said Navi Sidhu, the Undergraduate Students Association Elections Board chair.
Referenda that affect student fees are historically associated with higher turnout. The last time students were able to vote on financial referendums was in 2016, which drew more than 40% of students.
Improved student outreach also boosted voter turnout, Sidhu said.
“This time around, the election board was incredibly organized and tactical with how it approached advertising,” Sidhu said. “We use research and analytics to figure out the best sort of mediums to engage students. We also did an incredible amount of outreach that was probably incomparable to past years.”
In order to drive up engagement, the elections board distributed $15,000 worth of gift cards to students who voted. Since the board’s budget comes directly from student fees, they thought this was a good way to give back, Sidhu said.
“While I understand that it might seem like the $15,000 expense for giveaways might have been unnecessary given the circumstances, it was providing some money, albeit a low amount of money, back directly to the students,” Sidhu said. “So I consider that a win.”
Naomi Riley, the incoming USAC president, said 30% voter turnout is a good starting point, but added that it also showed that USAC needs to increase its accessibility and transparency to students. Riley has emphasized student engagement in her candidacy, proposing a Congressional Advisory Board where other student leaders could advise USAC on its decisions.
The 2020 election was marked by the unprecedented need to move all election related operations online. Its effects on voter turnout was mixed.
As the election season began, the elections board was worried about the lack of physical campaigning, since much of student engagement is fostered through flyering on Bruin Walk, Sidhu said.
However, the board came up with alternative ways to promote student engagements, Sidhu said. This involved overhauling the elections board website to increase the accessibility of candidate information, providing candidate qualifications and platforms, and partnering with Ballotpedia and EnCiv to host a virtual Meet the Candidate event.
“So I’m hoping this year we establish a precedent,” Sidhu said. “And I think that next year, if they were to copy what we’ve done this year and they also had physical campaigning, voter turnout could continue going higher and higher.”
However, as the entire election process shifted online, there was a surge of sanctions related to campaign violations, said Alfred Tun, the investigations director of the elections board.
“Dealing with sanctions this year has been hectic particularly because sanctions are very time sensitive,” Tun said. “Especially given the virtual election that we have, people were in general more eager to report violations regarding hashtags and disclaimers that were required by social media regulations.”
The improvements in the accessibility and transparency of the elections board made it easier for observers to report violations, Sidhu said. This, coupled with the competitive nature of many election seats, drove up the number of complaints that were submitted, he added.
This election saw high voter turnout as well as increased hate speech online, Tun said. This was in part propelled by controversies surrounding the referendums, he added.
“Students who were not happy with the referenda resorted to toxic attacks, which were of course not acceptable,” Tun said. “We had to issue statements from the election board against hate speech. We tried our best to moderate the language as much as possible but our resources were limited.”
Riley said her campaign tried to actively distance her from all the toxicity online.
“I think that this election has been particularly toxic for me, especially being a black woman,” Riley said. “I want people to give me constructive criticism on how they would be better represented by me, but I think that there’s a fine line between constructive criticism and overt discrimination and harassment.”
Riley’s council was sworn in Tuesday night and held its first council meeting Wednesday morning.