Low SA election turnout reveals need for better campus engagement
With only 24 percent participation, this year’s Student Association presidential election had the lowest voter turnout in the past five years. While student apathy towards the SA Senate and its leadership can easily — and perhaps fairly — be attributed to recent events such as the pandemic or the recent winter storm, SA election turnout has consistently declined over this five-year period.
With less than a quarter of students participating this year, it seems as though hardly any students care about who ends up in a student government position with the power to directly impact their lives. Every year, SA candidates promise to increase cross-campus student engagement with the SA. But every year, once these candidates are elected, nothing changes. Growing apathy toward the SA Senate and student governance should be deeply concerning for the entire Rice community.
In a year like this, it’s even more difficult than usual for the SA to increase student engagement. An entire class of students has never had a normal Rice experience — no public parties, no in-person cultural events and extremely limited experiences with college culture. Because of the socially distanced nature of the semester, it makes sense for members of the freshman class to feel dissociated from campus. The same can be said for upperclassmen, especially those living off campus; after years of campus involvement with in-person student activities, the switch to socially distanced activities can feel isolating.
Additionally, the recent winter storm — which hit Houston right before the SA ballots opened — likely drew attention away from individual campaigns and the elections. Many candidates chose to pause campaigning, due to personal obstacles caused by the winter storm and out of respect to those impacted. As a result, the electronic ballots became further buried in the inboxes of three-fourths of the student body, no doubt contributing to the record-low turnout.
While these obstacles pose more challenges for SA candidates to improve student engagement with the community, it also makes student engagement all the more vital. During this pandemic, student leaders have been tasked with even more responsibility than usual, making their decisions more impactful than before. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the members of the SA think outside of the box to bring their student body together.
It is time to think beyond emails as the primary means of campus engagement and create new avenues for reaching students. Throughout the year, the pandemic has pushed campus organizations to adapt their programming and devise more effective ways to interact with the student body, primarily via social media channels. We call on the SA Senate to take cross-campus student engagement more seriously than in years past, and put more concentrated effort toward innovating its communication.
The declining SA election turnout also suggests that only a small proportion of Rice students believe they have something at stake in this election. One solution to this problem is bringing more students directly into the Senate space as presenters, task force leaders and resolution sponsors. This requires significant growth of partnerships between the SA and the numerous student-led organizations on campus, especially those engaging with issues that the SA is already tackling. Additionally, the involvement of residential colleges in the SA can be heightened by more active efforts by SA senators to gather direct input from their constituents and even invite students to join them at SA Senate meetings.
Although it’s the responsibility of SA-elected leaders to guide students through campus involvement, it’s equally the responsibility of students to do so; without students who are receptive to their efforts, there’s only so much the SA can do.
It is easy to stop caring about the SA Senate, especially when you feel you have nothing at stake. But the SA can only become better and more in touch with the student body if the majority of students vote in elections and stay engaged with the SA.
Editor’s Note: Thresher editorials are collectively written by the members of the Thresher’s editorial board. Current members include Rishab Ramapriyan, Ivanka Perez, Amy Qin, Nayeli Shad, Ella Feldman, Katelyn Landry, Rynd Morgan, Savannah Kuchar, Ben Baker-Katz, Simona Matovic and Dalia Gulca.
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Rice students don’t pay attention to the Student Association. This is clear from recent Thresher coverage on the low voter turnout during the SA election and students’ inability to identify the people they “elected” to the executive team. If it weren’t for current SA President Kendall Vining’s encouragement to apply for Academics Committee chair last year, I would have fallen into that category too. I learned that although the SA is designed to represent and empower all student voices regardless of whether they hold a formal SA position in order to better our campus and broader Houston community, it struggles with apathy (or worse, alienation) and a lack of participation.