Student Apathy or Overbearing Political Parties: Who Takes The Blame For Low Voter Turnout?


Maddy Kirsch

Voter turnout for this year’s Associated Students Elections was plain dismal. A lone 6,684 students voted out of an undergraduate population of over 19,000. That equates to only a little more than one third of the student body, or exactly 37.16 percent–down from 39.73 percent last year and 41.78 percent in 2012.

It is difficult to claim that students simply forgot to vote, and almost impossible to claim that they were unaware of campus elections entirely. The elections-related signs lining the bike path were unmissable, the party affiliated t-shirts and wristbands ubiquitous, and the flyers unrelenting. The majority of students clearly knew that elections were going on, and made a conscious decision not to participate.

Far from proposing that we did not do enough to encourage student voting, I think that it is more accurate to say we did too much. All of the Open People’s Party (OPP) and Democratic Process Party (DP) drenched bells and whistles did not attract students to the polls; they repelled them. I picture the University of California, Santa Barbara student body as the crying little girl who went viral leading up to the 2012 national elections: “I’m tired of ‘Bronco Bamma’ and Mitt Romney!” she wailed while her mother assured her that it would all be over soon.

Replace “Bronco Bamma” and Mitt Romney with OPP and DP, and I think you’ve pretty much captured the mood around campus these past few weeks. Students got tired of it.

We got tired of feeling bombarded by all the elections noise, but starved for legitimate information. Apart from repeating certain buzzwords–like the fact that OPP brought us the skateboard lane and dining commons take-out boxes–nobody could seem to articulate a meaningful, philosophical difference between the parties, which only visibly exist to us for two weeks out of the year.

It’s hard to take OPP and DP seriously after witnessing their petty, unprofessional rivalry. It’s hard to even take the candidates seriously after 10 senators resigned mid-term during the 2012-2013 school year–especially considering that there were only 25 total senators to begin with. Do these student candidates even realize that the weekly Senate meetings they are committing to have the potential to be long and tedious?

I set out to write an article about student apathy surrounding campus elections. My plan was to scold students for their laziness and accuse them of not caring about the future of their university–a crime that seems especially reprehensible as we work to recover from the Deltopia fiasco. But upon further reflection, I found myself becoming oddly sympathetic to the motivations of the student non-voter. I think that our dysfunctional and obnoxious two party system is just as much to blame for low voter turnout as the students themselves.

Having attended elections results announcements for the past three years as an observer, I’ve consistently been embarrassed how some of the candidates conduct themselves. I’ve seen wildly inappropriate booing and cheering, complete with floor banging and jumping. After the announcements, OPP and DP usually huddle separately to chant and strategize as if they were opposing football teams. The message seems clear: the success of their party is more important than the interests of the students they represent.

Given all this, I can see why students have become disillusioned with the system. After all, it’s not like UCSB students just don’t care about democracy; we’ve consistently broken records for national voter registration, winning the Ultimate College Bowl competition in both 2008 and 2012. It is unfortunate that our own silly campus politics have prevented us from replicating this enthusiasm at the university level.

Next year, we need to do a better job of informing students not just about the parties and the candidates, but about what is at stake. Our student government handled about $2.5 million this year–that’s our money that comes from our student fees. And apart from choosing representatives, we also have the opportunity to vote directly on whether or not we want to fund certain programs, such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the Food Bank, and Campus Learning Assistive Services (CLAS). Without our support, these services could disappear in the future.

So while I share in the frustration with the structuring of elections at this school, I refuse to give up completely. We need to shift the focus away from party interests and back toward student interests. The future of UCSB is too important not to.