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Recent DSG elections highlight low student voter turnout

Twenty-three percent of eligible Duke undergraduates voted in the recent Duke Student Government election for vice presidents, senators and class council leadership. But what does that number really mean?

It is certainly a low number of sudents, but when analyzed alongside peer institutions and over time, it yields several interesting insights. The 1,486 students that voted in this election represented a nine percentage point drop from the 32 percent of eligible students who voted in last year’s election for the same positions.

DSG Attorney General Sabriyya Pate, a sophomore, said that she does not consider the nine percent drop to be cause for concern and that DSG’s efforts to increase voter turnout are generally on the right path.

“I think it is important, before we just say 23 percent versus 32 percent, to look at this in the context of Duke and then nationally,” she said.

Pate noted that compared to Duke’s peer institutions, a 23 percent turnout is not abnormal.

“Voter turnout is a problem at universities across the country. Relative to a lot of peer institutions, 23 percent is actually very good,” she said. “I’ve personally had people from other universities reach out to ask about how we run our elections because they want to get their voter turnout to reach where we are.”

Some peer institutions do post similar statistics to Duke’s. Brown University’s recent election saw approximately 22 percent of undergraduate students participate, which marks a sharp decrease from the nearly 50 percent of students who voted in 2015. However in Brown’s case, the two top positions of their most recent election had only one contestant. Dartmouth University saw an 18 percent voter participation in October 2016, when they democratically elected their senate for the first time.

On its website, Duke Student Government cites a 13 percent turnout for the recent student body president election at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an approximately six percent turnout at Harvard University’s midterm elections as examples of places Duke’s turnout beat.

However, some universities garner a higher voter turnout for student government elections than Duke does. At Vanderbilt University, the 45 percent participation in the 2017 election marked a five-year low for the school—which posted participation above 50 percent for the three previous years. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of students participated in Princeton University‘s recent student government election.

Sophomore Adam Bullock, a current senator for equity and outreach, attributed some of the decline in turnout to the fact that many prominent positions were not contested.

A number of positions up for election this cycle had only one candidate, including the vice presidents of academic affairs, Durham and regional affairs and equity and outreach. The junior and senior class council president races also only had one candidate.

“When contested campaigning isn’t as much a part of the social media sphere, I’m not surprised to see people less engaged with the election,” Bullock told The Chronicle.

Along with the drop in turnout for the April election, the March contest for DSG president and executive vice president that elected junior Riyanka Ganguly and sophomore Kushal Kadakia respectively had 1,948 student voters compared to 2,416—or 36 percent of the student body—in the 2016 election won by seniors Tara Bansal and Ilana Weisman.

Ganguly said that she found the low voter turnout in the April election to be “sad.” One explanation may be that grouping the recent election, the presidential race and the Young Trustee contest so close together is too much campaigning in a short span of time. 

She said that spreading out the timespan over which the elections occur and increasing personal interactions between candidates and students through physical polling booths may help to prevent students from becoming “desensitized” to the large amount of campaign material that they see online.

One race this year did see a large jump in voter participation. The Fall 2016 election for first-year senators had a turnout of approximately 50 percent, with 843 ballots being cast. That figure stands in sharp contrast from the 19 percent turnout the Class of 2019 had in their Fall first-year elections.

This heavy participation from the rising sophomores carried over to the most recent election—they made up 921 of the 1,486 ballots cast. 253 of the rising juniors voted along with 210 of the rising seniors, according to Pate.

“On East Campus, it is much easier to reach people because you can just table outside of Marketplace and easily reach a majority of the freshman,” she said. “In terms of seniors and juniors, it’s harder to reach them because the older they get the more disengaged they are from the process.”

Pate also attributed this disparity to DSG’s reputation on campus.

“When you are at Duke, over time you face the stigma that DSG doesn’t work for you, so you are less likely to participate,” Pate said. “But freshmen—I think the reason they are able to participate at these outstanding rates is because they haven’t succumbed to these pressures.”

Ganguly added that many students appreciate DSG's initiatives without realizing it—and said this might be a contributing factor to the lack of participation.

“I think that at the end of the day, it is important what students think of us because their buy-in is so important for lots of the things that we do,” she said. 

Some of Pate’s efforts to combat that stigma and increase voter turnout throughout the past year have focused on increasing the information students have about candidates. Earlier this year, DSG introduced a website that consolidates candidate platforms and biographies. A link to the site accompanied the election ballot sent to the student body. 

Pate said that having DSG host candidate “meet and greets” was also a new initiative under her tenure.

Going forward, Pate plans to implement an educational outreach campaign to encourage students to vote.

“Upperclassmen who are affiliated are more likely to vote, inherently, because of the fact that the candidates find it easier to meet with those groups. If you are in an SLG and they meet every Sunday, for me as a candidate running, that is an incredible opportunity to tap into,” she said. “At the same time, for all these independent students, it really disenfranchises them from the process because it means that they are not aware of what is going on in DSG elections.”

She added that she is confident that strategically targeting the networks that are not currently being reached will improve student engagement.

“I’m not worried by the drop. I’m confident in the programming and the collaborations going forward that are going to reach more students,” Pate said. “I’m just very optimistic about all the traction that we are getting and all the positive feedback that we’re receiving.”