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UCS encounters low engagement in elections

Members expressed concern that a new voting interface will result in decreased voter turnout

In this week’s Undergraduate Council of Students and Undergraduate Finance Board elections, Brown may battle historically low voter turnout compared to peer institutions.

The University had the lowest voter turnout for student government elections in the Ivy League last year, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported.

Just 28 percent of Brown students hit the polls last year. Yale boasted the highest turnout with 56 percent of students casting votes, followed by Harvard with 54 percent, Dartmouth with 53 percent and Penn with 50 percent.

Though Brown’s turnout falls short relative to peer institutions, it has seen incremental improvement in recent years, said UCS President Anthony White ’13. Participation increased from 26 percent in 2010 and 2011 to 28 percent in 2012, he said.

“But we could definitely get better in line with our peers,” White said, adding that participation should be “at least” 50 percent.


Changing the system

This year’s election will be decided using a new voting system, a change Council leaders said could have unpredictable effects on turnout.

Students will vote this year by taking an emailed survey on Qualtrics — an online data collection software — instead of on the MyCourses website. The change is a result of the ongoing University transition away from MyCourses software.

At the UCS meeting last week, UCS Vice President Brandon Tomasso ’13 expressed concern that the new voting system could decrease turnout, The Herald previously reported.

At the meeting, Tomasso said he was worried because students cannot vote if they delete the email with the link to the Qualtrics survey.

“My concern is that people will delete that email and then meet a candidate they like and develop an interest in the elections,” Tomasso said at the time. “Then they go back, and they can’t vote.”

White said he is worried the email with the Qualtrics survey may end up in students’ spam boxes.

Despite these concerns, White said Qualtrics may actually increase turnout because it has a “more aesthetically pleasing and streamlined” interface than MyCourses.

“Rather than having to click through dozens of pages, you can do it all in one sweep down the page,” White said.


Endorsement excitement

Elections coordinators at Yale attributed high voter turnout in Yale College Council elections to student groups’ engagement in the elections process.

“A lot of student groups on campus get very involved in the elections,” said Omar Njie, vice president of the Yale council last year. Njie said the LGBT Cooperative pushed for candidates to support the “hot-button issue” of gender-neutral housing options in 2012.

A key event during elections period is the endorsement meeting, during which representatives from student groups fire questions at candidates, Njie said.

Student groups select a candidate to endorse after the meeting, and the endorsements appear on the ballot, he said.

The UCS Elections Board does not hold an endorsement meeting, though student groups can choose candidates to endorse. UFB candidates may only be endorsed by Category III student groups, while any categorized student group can endorse a UCS candidate.

Eleven student groups, including the Special Events Committee and emPOWER, endorsed UCS presidential candidate Todd Harris ’14.5 this year. Seven student groups, including Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment and the African Students Association, endorsed Afia Kwakwa ’14, and one group, Brown Taekwondo, endorsed Daniel Pipkin ’14.

Still many leaders of student groups told The Herald their organizations are not very invested in student government or its elections.

“The key issues that we’re focused on don’t really pertain to UCS,” said Sofia Fernandez Gold ’14, president of the Brown Democrats.

“Our engagement in the elections process is a lot lower than our engagement in issues,” said Alexander Mechanick ’15, president of Brown for Financial Aid.

BFA often bypasses student government and deals directly with administrators, faculty members and students to promote its goal of expanding financial aid, Mechanick said.

Last year, BFA endorsed all three candidates for UCS president, but this year it endorsed none of them.

“At Brown there are a lot of different outlets to make change and speak to administrators” besides student government, said Manya-Jean Gitter ’13, chair of the UCS Academic and Administrative Affairs Committee, adding that student groups do not have to rely on UCS as the only “channel for change.”



Yale elections coordinators said the publicity of campaigns also helps draw Bulldogs to the polls.

Candidates advertise through Facebook and other social media platforms, display posters around campus and talk to students in person, Njie said.

Brown students told The Herald they did not think UCS elections have a very visible presence on campus.

All three candidates for UCS president have created Facebook events publicizing their campaigns. As of press time, 89 students had clicked “attending” for Pipkin’s Facebook event, and 1,731 had been invited. For Harris’ event, 151 out of 1,480 invitees had clicked “attending,” and for Kwakwa’s, 215 out of 1,969 invited students had clicked “attending.”

Angela Guo ’16 said she probably would not know elections were occurring if her roommate were not running for UCS treasurer.

“There is a lack of publicity,” she said, adding that her only additional exposure to the elections came through occasionally reading Facebook posts or seeing candidates collecting signatures in dining halls.

Daphne Xu ’14 said certain aspects of the election were unclear because they were not publicized enough, such as candidates’ platforms and how voting works.

Dylan Gattey ’16 said it “makes sense” that Brown’s voter turnout is low, given the low level of contact between students and candidates and between students and UCS in general.

“I don’t think there’s a public interaction between the student government and the student body,” Gattey said. “There’s not that big of an impetus to vote, because people don’t see how it impacts them.”

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