Last week’s elections for the Associated Students of Madison once again boasted impressively poor turnout — roughly 15 percent, all told. With such woefully low turnout, ASM is dangerously close to being an illegitimate government. Luckily for them, however, no one actually cares enough to make a fuss about the issue.
In fact, apathy on the part of students is the reason for the poor turnout in the first place. This is not just a temporary problem — ASM elections have historically drawn very little interest from the student body at large. The question is, what can be done about it?
From the perspective of ASM, not a whole lot. While it’s the responsibility of a government to provide accessible elections (which ASM has done), it’s not really their fault if people don’t want to vote. There are some things they could do — for instance, they could do a better job of educating students about what ASM actually does — but for the most part, a solution to the problem isn’t going to come from within the government.
So does the responsibility lay with the candidates? Sort of. But if the candidates are getting elected already with the minimal amount of work most of them do, then why would they want to put in more effort? In a perfect world, candidates would run the sort of large, inclusive campaigns that drive high turnout. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world, and we don’t have perfect candidates.
There is, however, a huge opportunity for student organizations to get involved with campus government. To begin with, there are the two most obvious organizations that have a vested interest in politics: College Democrats and College Republicans. In last week’s elections, both groups endorsed and campaigned to some degree for candidates — College Democrats for Chris Hoffman and College Republicans for Sarah Neibart. Both handily won Student Council seats.
This is a step in the right direction, but more can be done. Why stop at just one candidate? This is a great opportunity for both groups to further their interests and polish up their organizing skills for when bigger state and national elections come around.
And as an outside observer, I think it’d be a hell of a show to watch. I can imagine few things more entertaining than a full-scale battle between the Democrats and Republicans over ASM elections. The beauty of the idea nearly brings a tear to my eye.
But there’s no reason to restrict the discussion to groups that are purely political. There are plenty of groups on campus who have at least some political interest — think the Student Labor Action Coalition, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group and the Madison-Israel Public Affairs Committee. These are just a few groups — there are many, many more — that could benefit substantially from a greater influence in ASM. And there’s nothing stopping these groups from advocating for candidates who they believe would be sympathetic to the causes they represent.
Or, if they’re feeling particularly ambitious, they could even run their own candidates. Why not? With twelve Letters and Science seats up for grabs, it can’t be that hard to mobilize a group and get someone elected. It’s clearly in many student organizations’ best interest to get involved with student government. After all, many student organizations are directly influenced by funding decisions made within ASM.
What’s more, this has the added benefit of bringing in skilled organizers to the campaigning process. If more groups on campus took an active role in student government elections, election turnout could increase by a huge margin. Suddenly, students who thought ASM didn’t affect them at all would have some very substantial skin in the game. I’d be willing to bet that turnout could nearly double over the next few years if a substantial number of student groups got involved and started campaigning.
Of course, there’s no way to force student organizations to do this. However, that shouldn’t be necessary — it’s in their best interest to do so. Hopefully they realize this, as well. I, for one, wouldn’t mind if ASM was little less irrelevant.
Joe Timmerman ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in economics and math.