Student Government: 4 Positions Vacant, 2 Elected in Extreme Low Turnout

(Photo: Juneau Empire)

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By AJ Schultz, Editor

JUNEAU, Alaska — The results of the Fall Student Government election were certified on October 5, with a total of 6 votes cast. Two students ran unopposed for two offices, leaving four vacant. Josh Ellin was elected Vice President with five of six votes, the remaining one being a write-in for Luke Covello. Stephanie Villagomez was elected Treasurer with all six votes. The positions of Secretary, Public Relations Officer, and two senate seats were left vacant. This election has followed a trend of declining voter turnout at UAS.

Ellin, the newly elected Vice President, said the low turnout could be blamed on poor promotion and a lack of awareness among students.

“From what I heard, this is not new to this year, but it’s based on a continued lack of engagement from previous years,” Ellin said. “I feel like maybe not everyone knew there was an election coming up. And they saw there was an election, and then didn’t know if their vote really mattered.”

According to SamMi Zelley, a former Student Government senator, campus buzz surrounding student government was almost nonexistent leading up to the election.

“It was not a conversation on campus whatsoever,” she said.

Some, including Zelley, suspect that moving the election to UAS Connect, a new campus engagement platform, contributed to low turnout.

“Seeing that we ran the campaign and ran the elections on that, It’s an abrupt shift,” said Almeria Alcantra, President of Student Government for the Juneau Campus.

The introduction of UAS Connect, according to Dean of Students Nathan Bodenstadt, did not tangibly change turnout compared to previous years.

“We implemented UAS Connect this year for a lot of different things, and one of the things that we were excited about was hosting the election on it,” Bodenstadt said. “My hope was that we would really see an increase in our election turnout this year. We didn’t. In fact, it was remarkably similar to previous years’ elections. We see fewer than ten votes in many of our student government elections.”

Zelley said that UAS Connect failed to effectively promote the election and spread awareness.

“I was part of the voting to help support that, to help fund that,” Zelley said. “I think that our aspirations of how it was going to serve students is just not aligning with how it has turned out so far, specifically with student government.”

Zelley suspects that technical issues with the platform, which is hosted through Campus Groups, are driving students away from using it.

“Some of us are having very technical difficulties with it. I tried to download the app, and then it just gave me a white screen when I logged in, and I just couldn’t,” she said.

“The only way for me to actually register for an event is if I get an external link from, like, an Instagram story or something,” Zelley continued. “If I’m going to have those difficulties trying to engage with the platform, why would I use it?”

Zelley said that utilizing campus groups on such a small campus presents further challenges.

“From what I’ve heard, and the way it was presented to us at student government, It’s used by very large universities. And that’s not to say that it can’t be utilized by us, but I think that there are unique hurdles as a small university to an app like that.”

Both Ellin and Villagomez ran unopposed. Bodenstadt emphasized that uncontested elections drive down engagement.

“If you don’t have contested elections, why vote?” He laughed.

Faculty advisor and Political Science professor Glenn Wright says the lack of contention didn’t help.

“Low turnout is reflective of uncontested races,” Wright said. “You have a hard time getting people motivated to vote when the outcome is more or less foreordained.”

“It’s a bit of a shame,” Wright continued. “It would be great if we had more people involved.”

This year’s student government had an unusually low amount of officers returning to their positions from the previous year.

“We had a very strong student government last year,” Wright said. “It’s normal for there to be some rollover from the previous year, and that just didn’t happen in a very strong way here.”

Many students from last year’s student government either graduated or resigned from their positions.

“Going into that position, I had no idea what I was doing, and going out of that position I had no idea what I was doing,” Zelley said. “There was no communication in student government last year, which was a huge problem in coming to agreements on bills or the direction we wanted to take student government. We all were working on different things and not communicating with each other.”

According to Zelley, there is a major disparity between the responsibilities a student holds in student government and the compensation they get from the university.

“That was a big reason I had to leave student government,” Zelley said. “That’s the heartbreaking part for me, and for a lot of students. I can’t afford to be involved because I’m taking so many credits, and I want to be involved, but they simply don’t pay enough.”

Frustrations with student employee compensation are being heard by campus administration, as raises have been implemented across the board and further compensation changes are being discussed by an ad hoc committee, according to Dean Bodenstadt and housing director Sean McCarthy.

“We need to do something about the budget,” McCarthy said. “And it’s not just me, there’s other supervisors across the board saying we need to do something about this.”

Bodenstadt says that members of Student Government are part of an important shared governance network for the University when it comes to making changes.

“When we are thinking about making changes, or looking at changing fees, the people we go to are student government. They’re intended to be the student voice,” Bodenstadt said. “There’s been a lack of understanding about how important that is, and it’s resulted in lower turnout in elections, lower interest in elected positons. I’m concerned about low turnout, I’m even more concerned about the fact that we had two candidates for six spots. You wanna talk about something concerning, that is very concerning.”

“This is not student council planning the prom,” Bodenstadt continued. “Student Government Senate members are making decisions that will affect the lives of students at both the UAS level as well as the UA level.”

Glenn Wright said that student government plays an important role in articulating student interests to administration, faculty, and staff.

“It’s an organization that the university would be hard pressed to operate without,” said Wright.

President Alcantra agreed that the understanding of student government on campus needs to change.

“We really are there to serve the student body,” She said. “Whether that be through direct services, such as direct scholarship funds. There’s travel grants. We’re also there to support clubs, financially.”

A good example of how student government can impact student life, according to Alcantra, was a recent food insecurity survey put out by student government which ultimately led to a major overhaul in campus dining over the summer.

“I feel like that was a concern that had been circulating for years here,” said Zelley, who issued the survey. “But we finally had actual data points to support that. I think people in administration took it a little bit more seriously.”

To fill the seats left vacant after the election, direct appointments from President Alcantra are being considered if more students don’t run.

“Special elections normally happen every spring,” Alcantra said. “That’s nothing new, in terms of filling the vacancy. Hopefully, we’ll fill those seats soon and potentially hold a special election to do that sometime within the semester or next semester.”

Direct appointments from Alcantra are less representative of the student body, but may be a more time-effective way to fill the vacancies.

“You know, running an election is a little bit time-consuming and a little bit complicated,” Wright said. “Over the short term, if there are folks that have expressed interest in getting involved, that’s something that’s easier through the direct appointment process.”

Alcantra is optimistic about the future of student government, and encourages students to run and fill the vacancies left by the Fall election.

“I’m definitely excited to see how this body develops in the months to come,” she said. “I’d really like to bring in some freshmen and build this leadership group that will be leaders for, you know, potentially the next four years, if not more.”

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