Even though there was no scandal or recount, last week’s Georgetown University Student Association Senate elections were a disappointment. With just 1,006 students voting, this year’s senate elections had a 14 percent voter turnout. Only eight out of the 20 elections were contested. Three of the candidates who ran unchallenged didn’t even win with a majority of votes—more people voted for write-in candidates.
Sometime this year, you’ll probably hear a senator say that he or she represents the students’ will, but such statements won’t be true until GUSA conducts more competitive elections. Most races aren’t contested, and it is far too easy for a candidate to win by a small plurality, like Brendhan Haas (COL ’12), who won the right to represent Henle 1-48 with 4 out of the 16 votes cast in his district. Voter turnout is embarrassingly low, and many of those who vote write in friends as a joke.
What’s more, far too many candidates’ platforms say, in effect, “My friends and I don’t know anything about GUSA, so therefore GUSA must not do anything, and I’m going to change the system.” This is more untrue than ever, now that GUSA has full control of the Student Activity Fee and its Finance and Appropriations Committee is fighting for power over the $1.8 million in the student activities endowment. It’s clear these candidates didn’t do basic research before running. GUSA leaders may feel there’s not much they can do about apathetic voters, but it does not help that their candidates are so disappointing.
Some of the structural problems with the election can be easily fixed. If elections for everyone but freshmen were held in the spring, campus issues would be fresh in people’s minds and GUSA wouldn’t lose a month every fall waiting for senators to get elected. GUSA could also do more to advertise the election, including running a physical voting booth in Red Square. So that potential senators have to take their candidacies seriously, the election commission should require candidates to submit a 250-word platform to be included on the ballot under their names.
For the future, GUSA should consider restructuring the election districts to promote more competitive races. Class-based representatives would better represent actual student needs than districts based on housing. Sophomores and seniors have radically different priorities and perspectives, yet may live in the same residence hall and thus have to be represented by the same GUSA senator under the current system.
The next time GUSA senators want to do something controversial and they point to their democratic elections as evidence of their authority, we should remind them that 14 percent voter turnout is not a mandate. Representative governments can only function when elected officials have the confidence of their constituents. It is a sad reflection of GUSA’s position that some students would trust their futures to “Chicken Madness” before actual GUSA candidates. If GUSA wants true power, it must convince students to take its elections seriously.