Do Better: Razor-Thin Margins Decide SA Elections

The March 17 Student Assembly (SA) elections do not deserve a laudatory article that loftily states that SA members will now turn over a new leaf, buckle down and get to work. No, they warrant thorough scrutiny, analysis and criticism. It warrants pointing out that, even after a year of new fees, administrative cover-ups and tuition increases, students re-elected ten SA members. It warrants examining that less than 1% of the undergraduate population drew the line between who gained and did not gain a number of representative positions. It warrants asking why, after a year of dissatisfaction with and protest of the SA's actions, only 32% of the student population voted, and why an even smaller population voted in multiple races. In the epitome of absurdly close races, elections for Arts and Sciences Representative and Agricultural and Life Sciences Representative were reportedly determined by 2 and 13 votes, respectively. Furthermore, the representative positions' specific description qualifies them as the best to interact with students, address specific concerns and make changes within their colleges and constituencies.


Source: Elected Candidate. Does not contain statistics for Undesignated At-Large Representative.

Closest election results*:

Arts and Sciences Representative:

Robert Dunbar defeats Demetri Dawson by 2 votes.

.014% of Cornell’s total undergraduate population

.044% of total voting population

.047% of the Arts and Sciences undergraduate population

Agricultural and Life Sciences Representative:

Chris Li beats Omer Syed by 13 votes.

.093% of Cornell’s undergraduate population

.284% of total voting population

.386% of CALS undergraduate population

Undesignated at Large Representative:

Gabe Kaufman wins over Conor Hodges by 18 votes.

.129% of Cornell undergraduate population

.393% of total voting population

University Assembly At-Large Representative:

Matt Indimine bests Justin Cray by 29 votes.

.208% of Cornell Undergraduate population

.633% of voting population

None of the elections listed above were decided by a margin of more than 1% of either the total undergraduate population or the specific college population or the voting population. In the above elections, multiple seats existed for each position, and thus the included results that show the difference between the candidate who received the last seat and the candidate who did not gain a seat.

In many of the same races, however, the candidate who gained the most votes greatly outpaced the other candidates. For example, Juliana Batista gained 1.69 times as many votes as runner-up Matthew Stefanko (2,250 to his 1,328) in the Presidential election. Similarly, in the Undergraduate At-Large election, Matthew Battaglia received 1598, gaining 1.66 as many votes as runner-up Matt Indimine (who also received a seat).

Cornell undergraduates’ relatively low voter turnout (33%, an increase from Spring 2014 elections) creates a system in which students with large networks and well-honed campaigning skills beat outsider candidates with original ideas. SA elections epitomize former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous adage: “All politics is local.” Yet, SA elections again collapsed into a name-recognition and popularity contest.

Low turnout in a year filled with controversy

SA distrust and frustration throughout the student body indicated that the Spring 2015 elections could have seen high voter turnout and a large turnover of current SA members. Yet, neither prediction came to fruition. The sources of low turnout seem to be thus:

Apathy: Apart from the imposition of the health fee, many students fail to see ways that the SA impacts their day-to-day life at Cornell. The same malaise plagues voters on a national scale; The Washington Post reported that “[j]ust 36.4% of the voting-eligible population cast ballots” in the 2014 midterm elections. Shared governance apathy is an understandable sentiment: in a community busy with academics, social life, clubs, Greek life, and a multitude of other activities, the SA only gains attention after a big mishap. Notoriously low attendance at SA meetings evidences this fact.

Frustration with campaigning: Throughout the last few days of the election cycle, “yaks” – short anonymous messages – about candidates aggressive campaign tactics filled anonymous forum Yik Yak. Students complained about excessive chalk messages on campus sidewalks, incessant quarter carding, direct facebook messages and being interrupted from work in public spaces. As such, many students may have been further pushed to refrain from voting.

Lack of endorsements: A number of prominent organizations, including ALANA Intercultural Board and Cornell Democrats, consciously refrained from endorsing a candidate for the presidential position. Specifically, members of ALANA expressed frustration at many candidates’ lack of involvement in multicultural events and organizations. When combining anger about campaigning strategies and promises, many engaged students may have declined to vote in protest.

Difficulty of increasing turnout

I can criticize the low voter turnout far more easily than I can describe a plan to increase turnout. A number of obstacles still stand in the way of even reaching 50% voter turnout in the next SA election:

Action vs. disaffection: In the face of SA inefficiency and ineffectiveness, some students astutely question if the SA should continue to exist at all. At the last candidate forum, audience member Daniel Marshall, ’15, asked the Undesignated At-Large representatives if they would consider dissolving a continually ineffective SA. Many representatives were supportive of the idea. Thus, even after a year of extreme frustration with the SA, many students decide to not vote rather than vote for new members. The resulting low turnout leads to current SA members who often possess strong campaigning and networking skills gaining re-election.

Counter-productivity of mandated voting: A system to increase voting by mandating that students vote would greatly harm students’ rights and freedom of speech. As I previously mentioned, some student organizations issued statements declining to endorse a presidential candidate, citing dissatisfaction with all options. The Review published a rare anonymous post that urged students to vote for the “least worst” presidential candidate. Although low election turnout ushers candidates into office who have not captured a majority vote of the undergraduate population, the right to not vote is an important philosophical protection.

Majority stipulations: The elections committee and SA could theoretically pass new stipulations that require candidates to certain positions to garner votes from the majority of the undergraduate population. Although perhaps the most viable plan to increase voter turnout, the plan could also seriously backfire, leaving top executive positions undecided. Furthermore, current SA members seeking re-election are unlikely to pass a new stipulation that would put a new obstacle between them and their desired position.

Looking forward 

One simple solution remains: as undergraduates, we decide to attend more SA meetings, sit on subcommittees, read student blogs and newspapers, educate ourselves on available financial information and watch the actions of activist groups on campus. When the next election period arrives, we decide to vote, to encourage our friends to vote, to make the specifics of SA elections a conversation topic as common as this ridiculous Ithaca weather and to seriously analyze candidates’ platforms. Perhaps then we won’t spend the remaining months wondering why we hear about new fees only after their imposition.

As for the engaged, original candidates who lost by a painfully thin margin, hopefully they will turn their efforts to other ways of critiquing and influencing campus policy. In a Facebook post following the election, Conor Hodges, ’18, wrote, “Nonetheless, I’ll continue to fight for the good of this community through my committee,… and through unofficial channels like Fight the Fee.” Following the last election, students need to shake their heads, pick up their pens (or laptops) and chart the moves of administrators and representatives alike, whether through journalism, activism or conversation,

[* % total undergraduate location equals the number of ballots divided by the 13,935 2014-2015 undergraduates that Cornell reports. % school-specific undergraduate population equals the number of ballots divided by the number of undergraduates that the specific undergraduate college reports. % of voting population equals the number of ballots divided by the 4,581 ballots reported by the elections committee as the total ballots cast. The last figure includes some error because many ballots only included votes for specific positions.]