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Declining UPUA Election Turnouts Suggest Need For Systemic Change

Last week, Penn State students elected the university’s first queer person of color as student body president. Didn’t hear about it? We don’t blame you.

Just under 2,400 students voted on March 31 as election participation shrunk yet again, continuing a concerning trend for the University Park Undergraduate Association’s annual spring elections. Some representatives within the organization, including associate justice David Pool, say declining turnouts stem from uncontested and low-profile races.

“Largely, it’s from a lack of competition for seats and for the presidency and vice presidency. That’s a symptom across my years, too,” Pool said, who’s served as an associate justice and facilitated elections for more than two years. “Seeing how much [voter turnout] has declined is pretty significant, and I think a lot of it has to do with the difference in the level of competition. People aren’t motivated to campaign when they have no one to compete against.”

Voter turnout skyrocketed in 2017 when Katie Jordan and running mate Alex Shockley were elected to lead UPUA’s 12th Assembly. A record-breaking 12,301 students voted that year — a mark that more than doubles every election since. In the years following, just one executive ballot was contested (2020). However, that year’s election still attracted just under 5,400 student voters, representing only a modest increase in the middle of an otherwise strong decline.

This spring, Najee Rodriguez and Sydney Gibbard ran as the ballot’s lone executive ticket. Meanwhile, just 18 students ran to fill 20 seats for at-large representatives, while most academic college representatives ran unopposed.

Before students hit the polls, UPUA's legislature annually spends time in weekly assembly meetings amending and, ultimately, approving each year's elections code. However, Pool says UPUA's current process might be a significant factor behind declining turnouts at the polls.

"People who are going to be competing in the next election are going to be writing that election's code, so there's a pretty big conflict of interest there," Pool said. "A lot of the time, the changes that they've made have disincentivized competition and have disincentivized more people from joining and competing for the seats."

Years ago, UPUA's elections code scrapped a policy that saw at-large candidates and academic representatives register to run under a corresponding executive ticket. Now, an overwhelming sense of individualism is also making an impact on dwindling voter counts.

"When people weren't running [under an executive ticket], there wasn't a lot of 'everyone going out to support other people on the ticket,'" Pool said. "If you organize like that together, almost all of those people that you work with are going to help you get elected, and you're going to help them get elected. It was an incentive that got pushed down the drain."

"How the process works is kind of broken, and that's disincentivized competition," he added.

Pool agrees that a rising sense of individualism is, in one way or another, shrinking each election's ballot.

This year, 14 students embarked on write-in campaigns after the official date to register as traditional candidates quietly passed. Pool chalked up the dozen-plus write-in candidates to UPUA's sometimes-"cliquey" atmosphere and mindset that can limit its reach to the student body.

"People didn't really know to register for elections...That's why there were so many write-in candidates this year," Pool said. "They found out and thought they could potentially grab a seat, but they registered pretty much last-minute. Those people who are already running...they're not going to promote it through UPUA's channels to get registered as much as they probably should."

Overall, Pool feels UPUA's reach to the everyday student has lessened since the pandemic began. Traditional outreach events -- including debates between candidates -- didn't come to fruition throughout this election cycle, and they moved online in a largely disengaging format at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Think of it this way: Only current seniors were on campus the last time UPUA hosted a campaign cycle that wasn't affected by the pandemic.

This spring, Rodriguez and Gibbard hosted a few events, including an in-person town hall, an online "meet the candidates" stream, and a more relaxed conversation with students over Saxbys coffee. Still, Pool argues that those running for office could always strive to do more to rally student voters.

"I really wouldn't put the burden on the individual student. It's really up to the UPUA to put themselves more out there," Pool said. "Just knowing about it will usually help people vote. That's why you had 12,000 students vote back in 2017. You know, 12,000 students aren't intimately involved in student government and don't follow their weekly activities, but they at least knew about it."

"It was a big deal back then," he added. "Now, it's like a Zoom meeting with probably 10 people in it."

Moving forward, Pool says it's up to UPUA to employ widespread changes that shake up its status quo. Among them, he proposes having the assembly's judicial board suggest changes to each year's elections code, ultimately asking the legislature to later ratify the changes before campaigns begin. Pool says UPUA's non-political justices are best suited for such a role.

Additionally, Pool recommends UPUA work to limit barriers to entry to prospective elected officials, including executive tickets, which are required to obtain at least 150 signatures before appearing on a ballot.

"For a lot of people, walking around campus and getting maybe half as many signatures as people who are going to vote -- or maybe even a quarter of that -- is not easy," Pool said. "Stuff like that really makes students say, 'Oh, I don't really think I want to do this.'"

Regardless of which direction UPUA heads in, Pool won't be here to see it. His time with the organization is coming to an end as graduation approaches, but he remains confident that more competition would put UPUA's elections back into the spotlight.

"More competition puts people on the hot seat at the end of the day," he said. "That's what will make them compete, and that's what will make them reach out to more people to vote."

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State with distinction in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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