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Encourage participation in campus elections

By Matthew Kowalyk

Section: Opinions

January 29, 2016

Last summer, I worked on a local political campaign for someone wanting to retain their seat on the County Commissioners’ Board. The County Commissioners Board, as it works in my home county, is a triumvirate with the greatest concentration of power in all the land (that is Westmoreland County, PA). They make decisions concerning mostly major budget allocation issues among county departments and go to events to show that the local government cares about its people.

During my time in one of the Commissioner’s offices in the county courthouse and in his nearby campaign office, it pained me to hear people who didn’t know the dates of the local primary elections in May and general elections in the fall. It seemed to me that the only way to win the election was to have good word-of-mouth recognition and to remind people that there was actually an election taking place. There were campaign signs all over the county: on roadsides, billboards and in the fronts of stores and offices. Regardless of all of this signage, it wasn’t difficult for most of the county to proceed day-to-day while ignoring the entire election process, despite the importance of the positions and the local nature of the decisions.

The lack of popular engagement was similar, I noticed, during the week in which I ran for sophomore Class Senator here at Brandeis. I made a Facebook page and had willing friends share it; some of them changed their profile pictures to a campaign logo I made, and just before Election Day, I went around talking to students directly. My strategy proved unsuccessful, as my bid for the only contested position in this round of voting was lost.

However, I had a chance to look at the analytics afterwards. I was glad that almost 190 people voted in the contest for Class of 2018 Senator, but most other positions were filled automatically. Hardly anyone ran, and hardly anyone voted, for positions that directly affect how their tuition is spent. Mind you, we pay so much for our place on this campus that Al Jazeera used us as an example of an expensive American institution last year. Why is it, then, that our student body cares so little about the elections for A-Board, the Student Union and the Senate?

To an average student, and to me until last semester, it would seem that their actions are invisible. Initiatives are not sweeping enough to be noticed by everyone, and PR only exists through a polished website and an infrequently updated Facebook page. These facts are not criticisms, but are instead plain facts.

Further contributing to the problem is that no one seems to open their email. When promoting myself, I met too many people who say they don’t open their emails often—the same email inboxes through which we all receive class information, emergency updates and housing numbers, among other important information. The election form came through an email on Friday, and most people were not aware of this, even on Election Day. I can’t say exactly where the source of the student engagement problem really is. It could be that the Student Union doesn’t work hard enough to promote themselves or that their trust among the student populace fails to the point of not posting club funding statistics.

It must be kept in mind, though, that they are students with classes and lives, just like us, and deserve more credit for what they do than they currently receive. It could be that students aren’t engaged enough out of the laziness that is expected from college students, but the same facts pertain to us; we have classes and more immediate things that are worth caring about instead. When I ran for Senator, I ran on a platform of trying to increase the Union’s PR efforts, as they do undertake initiatives that affect us. My goal was to make more students care about these achievements. The fact that I see people frequently decrying the administration and student government and not participating just for the sake of doing so makes me wonder about the worth of such a plan.

The leadership at Brandeis is certainly not perfect, and we’ve seen that through several incidents over the past few years. Our side of the relationship with campus leaders seems only to see participation when something’s wrong. That’s even a stretch, as when the A-Board was shaken down last October, the public address to students was attended by a few club leaders, union members, members of the campus press and some students who wandered by. The A-board is directly responsible for spending around 1 percent of our individual tuitions, and yet only a few people showed up. On a side note, the senate has junior and senior ambassadors to the Board of Trustees, who are responsible with spending the other 99 percent or so of our tuitions.

I know we’re a community that can come together to do big things. We march, chant, fight for things and occupy buildings. We’re on teams and clubs, we volunteer and form many student organizations. However, it’s painful to see how few people care about what campus leadership does for them, how it is perceived that individuals’ opinions are not worth much to them, and that there is such a lack of interest even with our money in their hands. When it comes to administrative engagement, town hall meetings with Lisa Lynch are never well attended, and if anyone shows up, it’s mostly the campus press and less than 10 other students. I’d really like this detached, unmotivated attitude with regard to campus leaders, especially student government, to change.

I urge people to vote, to know the candidates running for positions that affect them and to get involved. Maybe our readers could encourage others to read their campus news publications, like this one. I don’t know what form a more involved campus would take; I only propose such things because it would be a much better experience for everyone if we did. Join a march, go to a basketball game, do things in large groups! We’re a small campus, but small still means around 3,000 undergraduates. Every time I walk past my own residence hall, I wonder how most of an 800-person class can live in the building, given that I hardly ever see many people moving in and out of it.

It’s harder for campus leadership to make the experience better on their end if students aren’t participating, because little student engagement gives them very little legitimacy or encouragement to do anything. Of course they can try to remain more connected and integral in campus life, but as I’ve already said, they have lives like us, and it might be a bit discouraging to post things on Facebook and have no one see them. Maybe we could all band together and like their page? It would certainly be a start. We’re not Penn State, Ohio State, Texas A&M or the University of Central Florida, where campus elections could mean electing people to represent thousands of students. It may be true that such responsibility may not be left to their student leaders, given the numbers of students they are responsible for.

Here at Brandeis, we’re a smaller community in which students can easily band together to make things happen. Just a little more cohesion among the population and participation in elections would make our experience immeasurably better. I’m not sure where to start, but it could very well start with caring about elections next time around. I’ve been on a campaign trail once, and I’ve seen people care little about things that truly matter to them. Sure, not caring about results from rational calculation, but I’m sure we have the power and initiative to do better. The more we’re involved, the more exciting the experience will be for everyone. I recommend looking at your email more than once every few days.

Maybe you’ll see the election email next time, and maybe you can find the candidates on Facebook, or talk to people about who they are, before you cast your vote. Maybe you can run for something yourself and make the election more interesting while giving your two cents in campus decisions? The work isn’t difficult, as it just takes a little time each week and some wishful thinking to do good things for the campus. All you have to do is listen to people. I know that there are grievances to be aired, and if you participate just a little more than in the past, something can be done about them. Just check your email once in awhile.

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