With Student Government elections beginning next Monday, the Elections Commission is hoping that several initiatives designed to boost voter turnout will yield results.
During the past few months, the Elections Commission, under the leadership of sophomore Claudia Medina, has enacted improvements to increase the number of polling locations and their hours of operation, as well as providing incentives to students who take the time to cast their vote.
Students will now be able to vote in the Wellness Center and every Residential College, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday. In addition to the traditional polling site in the Breezeway, which will operate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, the Elections Commission has also negotiated arrangements with STA Travel and The Rathskeller to offer voters discounts, and a raffle, with MP3 players and gift certificates as prizes.
“[Now,] there’s no excuse for people not to vote,” Medina said.
John Constantinide, speaker of the SG Senate, said these dramatic changes were badly needed, and now the group can begin improving on a record of low turnout.
The Elections Commission is responsible both for boosting voter turnout and monitoring campaigns for violations of the election rules.
Constantinide said in the past the group has been too focused on enforcement and punishment, while neglecting to attract students to the polls. He said that for years they acted “more like a police force than an Elections Commission,” and that Medina has done a great job bringing about necessary changes.
Medina admits that the Elections Commission has a bad reputation among groups concerned with voter turnout on campus.
“I can’t change the past,” she said. “I am here to change the future.”
Medina and Constantinide said the Elections Commission and SG are both working against traditionally low turnout in SG elections.
In the fall 2006 election, approximately 400 students cast ballots.
Constantinide attributes low turnout mainly to a lack of connection with student life on campus.
“Most students drive to campus through the Miami traffic, they take classes and then they drive home,” he said, adding, “Many [students] don’t care.”
Medina hopes that better publicity and voter outreach can go a long way towards solving the lack of participation.
“I would hate to think that it’s because of apathy,” she said. “I would like to think it’s because [students] aren’t informed.”
Constantinide also thinks that if students knew about the many contributions SG has made on campus, they would take more interest in it. He cited a list if accomplishments, including free New York Times distribution, free use of Napster and improved shuttle service as reasons why SG is relevant on campus.
“The question I get quite often is, ‘What does Student Government do for me?'” he said. “People are using the Ibis Ride and probably wondering, ‘What has Student Government done for me?’ Student Government brought them the Ibis Ride.”
Despite ongoing efforts to popularize campus politics, scholars are far from agreeing that high voter turnout is a worthwhile goal in and of itself.
Casey Klofstad, an assistant professor of political science, said low voter turnout could suggest that potential voters are satisfied.
However, all parties working to boost voter turnout in the upcoming election think that increasing turnout has effects beyond the scope of simply improving the democratic process on campus.
“If [students] are informed enough to actually go out and vote, then [they’d] probably go out and communicate to those elected officials: ‘Hey, this is what I want to be done [by SG],'” Medina said.
Constantinide thinks that improving the university today will ultimately increase the value of every University of Miami diploma. For instance, he said making sure that life on campus continually improves will attract the best professors and students in the future, as well as boost UM’s college ranking.
Ultimately, both Medina and Constantide think that voter turnout will improve this year.
Medina in particular hopes so, and said, “There should be no reason why people are not voting.”
James Remeika may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.