Reflecting on freshman year of college, many students can identify a moment that defines their experience—a moment when they knew they had officially become a part of the Duke community. For some it is a late night with friends, for others it might be the first time they set foot in Cameron Indoor Stadium for a basketball game. For many students, though, this moment is far more of a quiet realization, a sense of purpose, maybe even a calling.
Although there were many small moments throughout my first semester of college that made Duke feel like home, my revelation that I had a niche place in this community came in February of my freshman year. It was Thursday, Feb. 8, 2013 to be exact, though it quickly spilled over into the darkest hours of Friday morning.
It was the night of the Young Trustee election, and I was the Chronicle reporter assigned to get out the article on the winner. Based on the highly accurate scientific measurement of Facebook likes on campaign pages, I thought there would be a landslide victory and I would get to go home early. Expecting the results to be in around 11 p.m, an hour or so after the polls closed, I got to the office early to prepare for the numbers to come in. My freshmanic excitement quickly wore away as call after call to the Duke Student Government attorney general went unanswered.
Midnight came and went with no answers. Due to “technical errors,” polls hadn’t closed for two hours after their scheduled time. As 2 a.m. passed with still no winner in sight, we received word that the DSG Judiciary had been called to meet. I sprinted from the hallowed halls of the Chronicle’s office in 301 Flowers down to the now-demolished West Union meeting rooms to hear the verdicts. Government was happening, decisions were unfolding all before my eyes. It wasn’t until 4 a.m. that the final results came in. Two of the candidates had been docked 30 votes from their totals for violations in DSG campaigning policy, and the winner was announced.
For those who don’t know, 2013 was the year that Chris Brown, Trinity ‘13, won the Young Trustee election. But it was also the year that candidates had cared so much about the honesty and integrity of the election process that they were willing to file an official report with the DSG Judiciary. That amount of care and passion behind the Young Trustee position and the regulations of the election committee was something that seemed so important to me as a freshman reporter, and I felt honored to be a part of it.
Roughly 43 percent of the undergraduate student body voted in that election. For a position that allows a 22-year-old to sit on a board with people as distinguished as Apple CEO Tim Cook and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, supposedly granting them some sort of ability to influence the direction of the University, it seemed odd that less than half of eligible voters exercised their rights.
As it turns out, however, 43 percent was far from the lowest voter turnout I would see in my time at Duke. To put that 2013 turnout in context, it came two years after one of the higher rates from a Duke election, when Michelle Sohn, Trinity ‘11, won in a contest in which 50 percent of eligible undergraduates voted. Also on the ballot that year was a referendum to merge DSG and Campus Council. It seems remarkable that even with that extra and seemingly important, incentive to vote, still only half of the undergraduate student body took the initiative. And of those that did, there were a total of 212 different write-in votes, including ballots cast for men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta and Karen Owen, Trinity ’10. Write-in votes have since been banned from the Young Trustee election.
The following year, voter turnout fell to 46 percent when Kaveh Danesh, Trinity ‘12, won. After 2013’s turnout of 43 percent, the trend seemed to be reversing as Neil Kondamuri, Trinity ‘14, was elected when 53 percent of the student body cast ballots in 2014. After no candidate successfully received a majority of first ranked votes, Kondamuri won through an instant runoff with 12 more votes than the runner-up. Although this seemed a hopeful sign for the future of voter involvement in elections, 2015 saw a major drop in votes with only 38 percent casting ballots. The winner that year was also selected through instant runoff, with Anna Knight, Trinity ‘15, besting her runner-up by a margin of 314 votes.
All of these winners put in immeasurable amounts of work into their campaigns and preparation for the election, but it seems voters didn’t do their part in exercising their duties to be informed voters. Because the Young Trustee election is the first in the Spring election cycle, its turnouts often appear higher than the subsequent Duke Student Government presidential and vice presidential elections. By the time these latter two rounds come into play, many students are tapped out of any energy they had to care about casting ballots.
But that isn’t to say these elections matter less for the undergraduate experience. Quite the contrary, as DSG presidents and vice presidents have historically had a significantly larger ability to influence campus than a single member of the Board of Trustees. Yet students fail to care about these elections as much because they have already felt called to pay attention in one election cycle.
In just my four short years at Duke as a student and reporter for The Chronicle, I have seen the end of widely publicized and attended debates between candidates held on campus. At one debate I attended to cover during the 2013 presidential campaign between Stefani Jones and Patrick Oathout, both Trinity ‘14, the discussion was nixed after virtually no one showed up to hear what the candidates had to say.
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The Chronicle isn’t the only organization that has noticed the low turnouts in these elections. For several years in a row, DSG has set forth initiatives to improve low voter turnouts, though it doesn’t seem that any policy changes have been effective given the devastatingly low sub-20 percent turnout for freshman elections last Fall. Junior George Mellgard, DSG vice president for residential life, was one of the students that reached for better voter involvement. In a September DSG meeting, Mellgard highlighted that at peer schools such as Vanderbilt University, 60 percent voter participation is considered low. Duke routinely has turnouts around 25 percent in second and third cycle spring elections.
A quick peek on Facebook makes it clear that Duke students are highly interested in matters of politics. But these political interests begin in our own communities. Students have a lot going on at any given moment that can make student government and elections seem silly, but these votes have the potential to have real impacts on the future of the University and the undergraduate experience. We hold ourselves to standards of political engagement outside of college, so why do we as Duke students allow these elections to be so undervalued?