Column | Dec. 2
Last week, the 2013 USG elections were held over a three-day period, with the results announced over Thanksgiving break. Although many newly elected and reelected USG officers walked away with well-earned victories, the lackluster voter turnout is a disappointing sign of Princeton students’ apathy toward the USG. Based on the reported vote counts, just over 1,900 students — much fewer than half of the total undergraduate student body, which numbers over 5,000 — voted in this year’s elections. In last year’s USG presidential election, just under 2,300 students voted, including fewer than 500 seniors — a slightly better figure, but still a pitifully low percentage of the overall undergraduate population. This isn’t just a result of increased apathy among upperclassmen; in this year’s freshman class council elections, only 677 freshmen out of a class of 1,291 students voted. Any American citizen is used to the phenomenon of low voter turnout — even in our presidential elections, the turnout is rarely over 60 percent — but we Princeton students are supposed to be more politically informed than the average person, more aware of the need to participate in the political processes that directly affect us.
The USG is supposed to be a central part of campus activities and a unified voice that can effectively communicate with the administration for undergraduate students. The officers do an admirable job of attempting to maintain transparency and stay in touch with their constituency — everything from informal “office hours” to open meetings — but attendance at these initiatives is relatively low and the USG still faces a negative image of ineffectiveness on campus, as newly reelected president Shawon Jackson ’15 acknowledged during the candidates’ debate two weeks ago. Some skeptics view any kind of politics with a jaded eye and like to bring up personal benefits — financial or otherwise — as politicians’ main motivation to run for office, but USG officers don’t really receive any tangible benefits in return for their time and effort besides a line or two on their resumes. Serving as a USG officer is a volunteer job, yet the candidates still take campaigning seriously, going door-to-door and spending countless hours promoting themselves and their platforms before the elections. Many abstaining voters do not like or prefer any of the available candidates, and so they choose not to vote at all. This can be an understandable choice for an individual, but when the majority of a population chooses not to vote, we cannot really know what the outcome of an election should be. Although Jackson won by a large majority, and we can assume he would have won had every student cast a vote, we don’t know this for sure. It is possible that 60 percent of the student body does not like either Jackson or Zach Ogle ’15, but the more likely conclusion is that these students simply do not care and are uninformed about the USG elections — a sad truth when the USG is our main channel for actually turning complaints into changes. Some students might choose not to vote because they believe the USG does not have the influence to make any real changes happen on campus. However, we cannot ever expect it to be influential if we continue to hold this kind of self-perpetuating sentiment — complaining about unsatisfactory facets of undergraduate life while viewing the USG as ineffective definitely won’t result in any of the changes we want.
There really is no reason not to vote in the USG elections. The ballots are cast online and take only a few minutes to complete, with repeated email notifications sent out to remind students to vote. The candidates’ statements are all available online as well, and the candidates themselves are very accessible through the various channels set up by the USG. On top of that, most of the candidates do a hefty amount of door-to-door campaigning, along with other tasks such as putting up posters and handing out flyers. Moreover, this issue is not limited to Princeton — despite our reputation as a politically uninvolved campus, we are not the only school that tends to overlook its own campus politics. Harvard’s undergraduate student government elections were held a few weeks before ours, and the “joke ticket” won by a small but sizeable margin of 200 students out of about 3,200 total voters — also fewer than half of the total undergraduate student body — but the newly elected president and vice president immediately resigned from their positions, and a new election will be held to determine the new ones soon. Perhaps this time, the student body will realize that a small group of motivated pranksters can actually swing an election the wrong way — imagine if Stephen Colbert had actually been elected president last year. Harvard will surely learn from this fiasco, and Princeton and other schools should take note. Hopefully, we will never elect any joke candidates, but maybe that’s the kind of shock we need in order to start caring about our USG.
Spencer Shen is a sophomore from Houston, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.