Only one contested SA Senate race highlights struggle to generate election interest

Media Credit: Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor

SA senators and the JEC have historically sparred over who is responsible for advertising the elections to prospective candidates, a dispute that students have said has contributed to the lack of student interest in elections in the past.

With 19 uncontested races this election season, it’s likely that all but one candidate running for a Student Association Senate seat will be elected without ever facing an opponent.

This year, only one position – an undergraduate seat in the Elliott School of International Affairs – is contested, with four candidates running for only three spots. Candidates running in uncontested races said the pressure to develop an in-depth platform was mostly nonexistent, but they are still campaigning to prevent an unlikely defeat from a write-in candidate.

The issue isn’t new to the SA. Last year, just eight of 38 seats were contested ahead of the election – but this year’s election will have the fewest contested senate races in recent history.

Fourteen seats don’t have any candidates this year, and the Joint Elections Commission – the body that oversees SA elections – reopened registration March 5 for candidates in the hopes of finding candidates for 10 vacant seats. Two students registered during this period.

The lack of interest comes as the SA’s legislative branch has focused heavily on having a full senate this year – pushing legislation and advocacy work to the spring in favor of filling vacant spots. It also reveals a continuing struggle for the SA to generate interest in student government even at a University with a reputation for enrolling politically minded students.

Emily Recko | Hatchet Designer

Even though candidate registration was low, Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson said the senate will have a much higher number of returning senators and students with SA experience in this election than in years past. That will give the senate a head start when pushing advocacy work next academic year, she said.

Only four senators ran for reelection to the senate last academic year – consistent with years past – but this year there are 11 current senators seeking another term.

SA senators and the JEC have historically sparred over who is responsible for advertising the elections to prospective candidates, a dispute that students have said has contributed to the lack of student interest in elections in the past.

Nelson said it should be a joint effort – and even one that includes additional bodies like Class Council – because the goal is to reach as many members of the student body as possible. Both the SA and the JEC advertised the elections on social media and in email blasts this year, and the JEC held information sessions for prospective candidates.

“I think that it’s a partnership, a collaboration effort to reach out to students, to access representatives – and everyone has a part in that,” she said.

Still, the SA faces the prospect of having more than a dozen empty seats next academic year, barring write-in candidates winning races. Student leaders said this election season, no race is fully uncontested because after an overhaul of the rules regulating student elections last fall, students can mount write-in campaigns – and potentially successfully win a seat – for the first time.

JEC Chairman Bob Wu said that 12 students as of Saturday have expressed interest in running a write-in campaign, which should encourage candidates in uncontested races to campaign more. Write-in candidates do not need to register for the election or collect signatures – a requirement for verified candidates. Instead, they can spread their name informally to students.

Wu said the write-in rule makes all elections “competitive” and that students in uncontested races have still been taking the time to develop their campaign and promote themselves.

“Even if some of them have the impression that they’re going to automatically win, they’re still taking the time to put in ballot statements that reflect their vision. We still see a lot of candidates doing postering,” Wu said.

Although a contested race does spawn more competition, Sen. Brady Forrest, G-at-Large, and a candidate for executive vice president who helped fill vacancies in the senate this year, said uncontested campaigns give students the opportunity to “start doing their homework” instead of rushing into an underdeveloped platform.

“It kind of enables them to start thinking instead of campaigning,” Forrest said. “They can start thinking about what they’re actually going to do, how do they learn more about the senate?”

Candidates in uncontested races said they haven’t spent as much time developing their platforms as they would have if their race was contested, but the fear of an unlikely write-in candidate has forced them to at least advertise themselves.

Hayley Margolis, a freshman running for an undergraduate seat in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said she was surprised to see the low number of candidates running this year, especially since GW has a reputation for being politically active. She is one of six candidates running for six open undergraduate CCAS seats.

She said her campaign has been much more “laid-back” because it is uncontested. Margolis didn’t participate in postering day and started campaigning over spring break.

“For my first-ever time running for an elected student position, it makes it a lot easier that I can’t lose,” she said.

Vaibhav Vijay, one of six candidates for CCAS-U, said running an uncontested campaign has enabled him to focus on his future goals for the senate, rather than put all his effort into the present campaign.

Vijay said the 200 signatures required to run for a senate seat in a large school like CCAS creates a barrier for students who may otherwise want to run.

“I feel it’s definitely necessary, but it was a process,” he said. “It may have deterred some people from running, because you had a week to do so, and some people might not have been able to finish it.”

In this year’s only contested race, four candidates will vie for three undergraduate seats in the Elliott School. The candidates said knowing their race is contested has made them more competitive and eager.

Freshman Amy Martin, a candidate for the undergraduate ESIA seat, said she always assumed her race would be competitive because she wanted to make sure she was prepared for an opponent. Martin said one benefit of the competitive nature of her race is that she has the opportunity to clarify and do more research for her platform because she needs to have valid ideas to garner votes.

“It forces you to think ahead of time what you want to get done next year, because you have to tell people now, ‘these are the things that I am advocating for, this is why you should vote for me over somebody else,”’ she said.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.