Every spring, the smell of soggy campaign flyers and free pizza fills the air across campus as candidates for Associate Student Government’s presidency attempt to win votes from a stereotypically apathetic student body.
But this year has been a bit of a downer. For several reasons, the current ASG election is one of the least publicized and attended elections in recent memory.
Overall turnout dropped by 50 percent compared to last year, and looking at ASG presidential elections in the past, this year’s turnout has been by far the worst. A total of 1,758 people voted on Wednesday, with Julia Watson and Erik Zorn winning a massive 85 percent of the vote. By comparison, for the last six years, total turnout has never dipped below 3,000, much less 2,000, votes.
But why is this the case?
1) Shorter campaigning times. The main reason for this election’s low turnout is ASG’s decision to limit campaigning periods to one week; candidates used to have two weeks to make their case. Why the shorter period? ASG voted last year to reduce it because of the burden campaigning placed on candidates and staffers. “I was on a campaign last year and people got really tired,” said newly-elected ASG president Julia Watson, saying that attending classes while running in an election proved overly taxing for many. Erik Zorn agreed, adding that the shorter time period had benefits too: “We were able to get our message out without having to pester people too much,” he told The Chronicle.
2) Lack of choices. Only two sets of candidates ran this year; in 2013, four did; the year before, three. Having different options available adds new ideologies to the mix and can attract voters who don’t usually care about ASG. In 2012, for example, dark horse candidates Dan Tully and Jeziel Jones campaigned on the platform of radically restructuring ASG and essentially abolishing its Byzantine constitution; they didn’t win (Victor Shao and Brad Stewart did), but managed to attract a significant amount of votes.
3) A remarkably uncompetitive race. The main candidates this year were well-supported by the establishment and saw no significant challenge to their policy platform. Julia and Erik, who both have extensive ASG experience, were endorsed by the existing ASG leadership, Ani and Alex, and were (predictably) endorsed by The Daily Northwestern, which usually chooses candidates with insider experience. This institutional support helped usher in a massive landslide for Julia and Erik, who received 1,489 votes compared to Alex Deitchman and Ronak Patel’s 269.
But considering the nature of the election, this kind of blowout isn’t surprising. For one, Alex and Patel had far less student government experience – Deitchman, a Marine Corps veteran, only transferred to Northwestern in Winter 2013 (although he immediately joined ASG.) Moreover, Deitchman essentially ran to make sure Julia and Erik didn’t run unopposed, which would have been something of an embarrassment for ASG. (He told the Daily he had never actually planned to run for president.) All told, 2014 not only had a low turnout, but also appears to have been one of ASG’s least competitive races. No ticket has won with such a high margin (85 percent!) in the past six years.
To be sure, all the candidates in 2014 had well-crafted and relevant policy platforms which addressed issues ranging from the Title IX lawsuit to mental health on campus and financial aid. And running an entire election campaign in only a week is no easy task. But if the cost of a one-week campaign is a 50% decline in turnout, it’s worth asking whether the idea helps to “engage and empower” the Northwestern community, as Julia and Erik’s election slogan goes.
Data used for the infographic:
- Sales-Griffin, 2008: about 3,200 votes cast.
- McGee & Smithburg, 2009: 4,292 votes cast.
- Lew & Kawashima, 2010: 3,482 votes cast.
- Austin & Ash, 2011: 3,035 votes cast.
- Shao & Stewart, 2012:, 3,597 votes cast.
- Ani & Alex, 2013: 3,471 votes cast.
- Julia & Erik: 1,758 votes cast.
- (Note: in the case of runoff elections, only the first and main round of votes was counted.)