Voting for apathy

Student elections are coming up at PSU. The question is, does anyone care?

The answer is: not really.

But, given ASPSU’s role as in intermediary and advocate for students, by all rights they ought to care. So why don’t they, and how can that be changed?

Historically, around 10 percent of PSU students vote in ASPSU elections. This is lower than the turnout for the last presidential election, as well as local primary and general elections during 2001-04, which showed about 20 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 participating.

Of course, the average PSU student is 27 years old. Perhaps as you age, your idealism fades and you stop voting.

Last year’s ASPSU elections showed record turnout with ��- are you ready? – 2,432 students voting (out of 21,348 enrolled for the 2004-05 school year). This was a 21 percent increase over the previous election year.

Apparently, PSU’s lackluster poll turnout is not unusual in the world of higher education. From all the evidence I’ve been able to gather (much of it anecdotal) institutions with upwards of 15,000 enrolled students typically experience voter turnout between 5-15 percent, and only rarely approach 20 percent. Smaller universities, public or private, are more likely to get 50 percent or more of students to vote, which raises the interesting question of why – or whether ��- voter participation is related to overall enrollment.

All these depressing numbers notwithstanding, the question must be asked: Why should any PSU student care about elections or student government? Isn’t it just a big popularity contest, like in high school? Does ASPSU actually do anything for students?

Answering these questions for more students might hold the key to increased student involvement in campus politics. Intent on shedding what light I could on the mystery of our uninvolved campus, I asked these questions of various PSU political and student leaders.

Ryan Klute, who is running for ASPSU president on the diverse slate with Ana Johns and who served as vice president during the Harper administration, summed up the importance of student government: “Student government in Oregon is recognized by the state, and by other institutions of higher education, as the formal means for students to communicate with administrators and legislators.” This is not true everywhere in the U.S. Madeline Enos, who is running for Student Fee Committee chair on the “progressive” slate, echoed Klute’s understanding, saying student government has “the potential to do good” and that it should be a stronger voice of advocacy for students, particularly the underrepresented “nontraditional” students (those who attend part time, take night classes, work full time, have children, etcetera.)

When asked what actual impact student government has on student’s lives, Ryan Klute was honest in saying that the effects can be “nebulous.” He did recall, however, that during the Harper administration, the executive staff endeavored to make the immeasurable measurable by publishing reports of all their concrete accomplishments, sending out newsletters, and having open campus forums. According to Klute, some good work is being done by the current administration, “But it is not being communicated to student body in any effective way,” he said, stressing the accountability of the elected officials to not only advocate for students, but to keep them informed of their progress and agenda.

Enos, too, advocates greater openness and communication from ASPSU, saying that there has “not been enough effort to make student government transparent.”

So, assuming that ASPSU can actually make measurable, impactful changes on student life, what about student involvement? What would it take to get the PSU voting turnout up near (or over) 50 percent?

“People could still be working damn harder on this campus to get people to vote,” Klute said, passionate on this topic. “People hitting the pavement is what I’m talking about.” Enos agrees, but has some suggestions for improving campus engagement. “Changing the turnout requires more funding for Get Out the Vote. Currently, most funding comes from the slates, not the university. It’s donation-based funding,” she said. She also alludes to the personal responsibility for students to be civic-minded and engaged, saying, “students need to be self-motivated” to be involved.

Additionally, the progressive slate is going to be attacking a new and (untapped?) segment of PSU students.

“The nontraditional student is our base. We’re not interested in prom, we’re not interested in midnight breakfast. But we will be there at 9 p.m. when class lets out [to encourage students to vote],” Enos said, confident in the results these efforts will have and predicting that “voter turnout being higher than ever.”

Of course, if voter turnout does hit record highs, it may be because enrollment figures have, too. A close comparison of enrollment increase and voter-turnout increase will reveal the effectiveness of what is sure to be a busy season of campaigning.

Clearly there is shared ground between the progressive and diverse slates, both of which seem interested in advocating for students and making student government both more useful and more transparent to students. These conversations deny those who would pigeonhole the slates as “progressive” and “conservative,” the luxury of such simpleminded compartmentalization. A two-party election may seem to lend itself to that sort of polarization – at the very least, it renders the hard-won instant-runoff voting system somewhat impotent – but even a very brief discussion with involved parties will reveal deeper complexity.

Student votes should be encouraged with canvassing – and media coverage, and announcements in class, and general awareness campaigns – but not ad nauseum. It is possible that part of the problem stems from revulsion at the glut of colorful campaign advertising reminiscent of high school homecoming.

Neither can we condemn students for their lackluster involvement ?” shaming people into voting will do nothing to encourage informed decision-making. Ryan Klute displayed understanding of this dynamic, reiterating that it is ASPSU’s responsibility to show itself relevant to students before it is entitled to ask for their involvement or, indeed, votes.

I came to this topic with a harshly skeptical attitude. It has become clear to me, through my research, that ASPSU has great potential as a governing body that can make positive changes for many, many students. ASPSU, like a corporation or any organization – like PSU itself – will only be as strong and sensitive as the individuals who make it up.

It is imperative, then, that we as a student body – those of us who are going to vote, anyway – elect student leaders who are not going to get bogged down in bickering and brinkmanship, or get seduced by their own pet projects, leaders who are serious about making changes, increasing transparency, and being accountable to us.