On Monday, petitions for the upcoming ASUCD elections were released. Yet yearly averages show that 85 percent of the UC Davis student body was unaware of past election cycles. Like the latent crash of thunder, so low and distant it hardly registers in the human auditory canal, petitions were released, and UC Davis campus politics awoke from its slumber.
Election season began this week, and despite the prominent electoral indicators – including A-Frames, fliers, candidate presentations and ASUCD Coffee House (CoHo) debates – most students will remain unaware of the politics taking place around them. This, in turn, could lead to low electoral participation.
Voter turnout is typically low. In a university of approximately 25,000 eligible undergraduate voters, only about 3,000 to 4,500 students (10 to 15 percent) vote on a quarterly basis. What’s more, few students aren’t even aware of their student government or its elections. Kevin Tsukamoto, a first-year design major, did not know when elections began, or how the electoral process functioned. He did, however, know ASUCD stood for Associated Students of UC Davis.
Other students, like Hong Hochung, a first-year molecular biology major, were similarly nonplussed. Such ambivalence has ASUCD Elections Committee Chair, Stephanie Wong, worried.
“The Senate does do important things, but the average student doesn’t care or is far too busy to notice,” Wong said.
These important things include ASUCD’s $11 million budget used to facilitate major student services like the CoHo, Unitrans, campus radio station KDVS and the town’s much beloved Picnic Day. The Association is also responsible for maintaining the post office in the Memorial Union and subsidizing the Pantry in Lower Freeborn. Despite these significant offerings, many students like Tsukanodo and Hochung don’t know how their elected representatives are chosen.
Elections take place during Fall and Winter quarters, with six Senate seats up for grabs each time. The president and vice president are elected in Winter. Beginning in the third week of the quarter, prospective candidates are issued petitions, which they must return to the Elections Committee one week later with 125 student signatures. The campaign period then lasts until the seventh week of the quarter when voting takes place.
Voting is done online in a format known as ranked choice voting. In this system, voters rank their candidate choices one through six. When a candidate receives a predetermined number of first place votes, they are elected. From there all second rank votes are counted until another candidate is elected, and so on until all the open seats are filled.
It’s a complicated system, and it comes with its own unique advantages and disadvantages.
“It’s a system that causes every vote to count,” Wong said.
Ranked choice voting allows voters to cast their number one vote for an underdog candidate without simultaneously throwing away their ballot. This is opposed to American politics, where individuals rarely vote for a third party because they know only major party candidates have a legitimate chance to win.
“It’s a way of people getting to express their true preferences and not having to vote tactically,” said political science Professor Ethan Scheiner. “Rather, they don’t have to cast their ballot for someone they don’t really like.”
The main detractor from ranked choice voting is that its complexity drives away the uninformed.
“In general people don’t know all that much about what’s going on when they vote,” Scheiner said. “That gets even more complicated if you ask them to rank their preferences in any kind of way.”
Because most voters are only familiar with one or two candidates, asking voters to rank six choices can send some running from the ballot boxes.
As a result, the 15 percent who do vote each quarter tend to be very well informed. But many feel student government should represent more than the campus’ political avant garde.
“ASUCD is meant to cater to the students – we want to know what the people want,” Wong said.
One of the reasons students don’t know much about their student government is the lack of prominent information. First-year students enter with little to no knowledge of ASUCD.
“I only found out about ASUCD because I was looking on their jobs website,” Hong Hochung told me.
To combat the information shortage, ASUCD is working to expand its online presence by creating a Facebook page, among other improvements. The Elections Committee also has the means to advertise itself, albeit with a limited budget of approximately $3,000.
Another way to raise turnout would be to involve more students in their student government. ASUCD President Adam Thongsavat said he would like nothing better than to increase student involvement.
“I love seeing qualified people get jobs in ASUCD. Working on a commission or as an intern is great because you work with a team and you learn a lot,” he said.
In the end, however, the onus for raising turnout is on ASUCD.
“What is most important is that students are aware of the services ASUCD provides,” said ASUCD Senator Matt Provencher.
By improving the quality of its offerings, members of the association hope to draw more people toward it.
“Do things that matter and people take notice – do things that matter,” Thongsavat said.
JUSTIN GOSS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.