At this time in 2019, the last time the Student Association held a completely in-person campaign season, campus was plastered with posters and dozens of student organizations and SA members had released endorsements for candidates they backed.
But with just hours until voting opens on Tuesday for this year’s election, once-coveted wallspace remains largely barren and only a few student organizations have weighed in. Fewer senate candidates are running this year than in any of at least the five most recent elections, even as the number of seats up for grabs grows again this year – largely the result of a policy change that the student body approved in a fall referendum.
Only one senate race – the Elliott School of International Affairs undergraduate election – is contested as 17 others remain unchallenged. More senate seats won’t have a declared candidate than any other year since at least 2017.
The Joint Elections Commission had extended the candidate registration period by 12 days this year for 15 senate races where not enough candidates had registered to fill all of the available seats. The number of registered candidates before and after the extension remains the same, indicating that no new students registered during the extended period.
Just two candidates each threw their hat into the ring for the presidential and vice presidential races. Candidates’ platforms have focused on strengthening relationships between the SA and the student body, collecting feedback on the new dining plan and increasing funding for student organizations.
SA Vice President Kate Carpenter, who had been preparing to run for president this year, has now decided to leave the SA once her term ends, citing cyberbullying from mostly anonymous users.
SA Sen. Dasia Bandy, ESIA-U, became the first to announce her campaign to run for SA president in late February, about a week before senior Christian Zidouemba announced his third consecutive bid for the post. SA Sen. Yan Xu, ESIA-U, and SA Sen. Alfredo Granados, CCAS-U, will face off in this year’s vice presidential race.
Students will also vote on one referendum that will ask students whether the constitution should codify how students can approve or reject potential adjustments to the SA fee and require the senate to adopt the budget for the upcoming fiscal year in March. If students approve the referendum, the constitution will outline a process allowing students to vote on any proposed adjustments to the SA fee – which totals $3 per credit hour – through a referendum.
Senior Catherine Morris, the executive branch’s chief of staff, said students’ lack of experience with in-person elections may have resulted in fewer interested candidates. The pandemic hit in the middle of the 2020 campaign season, and last year’s campaigns were held entirely online.
“It just makes it more difficult to feel any sort of connection or understanding of the process, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Morris said.
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Senior Drew Amstutz, who ran for SA president in 2020 when the pandemic’s onset moved classes online, said remote operations made campaigns less visible and students have become less engaged from the SA as a result. He said this year and previous election seasons look like “night and day” in comparison.
“Some of the core SA election cultures and traditions, like postering day and the debate and the election day itself, just kind of dissipated,” Amstutz said. “And as students came through GW and didn’t interact with the SA in these ways, I think that lost a lot of its visibility and its integral connection to GW student life.”
Only two of 25 total candidates on this year’s ballot attended postering day, an event that unofficially marks the start of campaign season with a crowd of candidates usually running across campus to secure coveted wallspace for their campaign posters. Years ago, the event even began with a pistol start.
The JEC held this year’s SA debate on Sunday night, less than 48 hours before polls open. The debate timing has continued to push closer to the election for two consecutive years, with last year’s debate occurring four days before the first ballots were cast.
Amstutz noted that the SA has become “less of a presence” on campus as other advocacy organizations, like the Black Student Union and Students Against Sexual Assault, have taken more of a leadership role within the student body.
SASA members have advocated for Title IX reforms this school year, participating in protests and holding a clothesline project in Kogan Plaza, where survivors of sexual assault wrote their stories on clotheslines, including statements pertaining to sexual violence and other types of harm.
“There’s a power shift in GW campus culture towards smaller student organizations, as opposed to a larger SA presence,” Amstutz said.
In the two SA elections held remotely, turnout fell to nearly a 10-year low, with roughly 12 percent of eligible students voting in 2021. A lower turnout was recorded in 2017, but there was no presidential race on the ballot.
But even with a smaller pool of candidates, the JEC is hoping for a sharp reversal this year with students back on campus, setting a goal of 5,000 voters.
The 2019 voter turnout – the highest since 2015 – occurred when then-freshman Justin Diamond forced a runoff election after mounting a write-in campaign for SA president. Diamond campaigned on dissolving the SA and reallocating the SA president’s $15,000 stipend to student organizations.
Turnout surged to near record highs, with 4,967 students voting in the elections – about 18 percent of eligible voters. Diamond ultimately garnered about a third of the vote in the runoff, losing to SJ Matthews.
Three years later, Diamond said energy and excitement once generated by the SA has all but disappeared.
Diamond said students often resign from the SA or are uninterested in running for a position because they have found other ways to stay involved in campus life. Ten senators have resigned since the start of the senate’s term in May, with many saying they did so to commit their time to matters outside the SA.
“I’m actually really glad that there are so many vacancies and so many people not participating in student government because I think the time is better spent elsewhere,” Diamond said. “And that credit is not entirely to me. There’s always been a slight nihilism. I just think I hope to amplify it.”
He said the SA Senate should be trimmed to about 12 senators, a size that could preserve the SA’s “useful” facets, like the finance committee.
Diamond also said students may not want to admit they are members of the SA because they may receive hate or criticism online.
“It’s just completely inappropriate to go after people and individuals and the way that people have in the last two or three years,” Diamond said. “And even when I was running anti-SA campaigns, I never tolerated that, and I don’t think anyone should tolerate that.”
Zach Schonfeld and Jared Gans contributed reporting.