Elections: how do we measure up?

It’s no secret that Carnegie Mellon’s student government elections this year could have run more smoothly. In the past, Student Senate has suffered due to a lack of interest in government elections and overall government participation, as well as technical difficulties, tampering with votes, and delay in approval of the final results. Now that Sean Weinstock and Adi Jain have been declared student body president and vice president, respectively, questions arise about improvements that can be made to prevent election problems from happening again.

The university already has a few ideas on how to improve the student government elections process.

“Security of an electronic voting platform will be one of the paramount factors to consider when deciding the direction of future elections processes at Carnegie Mellon,” said Gina Casalegno, director of Student Activities and advisor to the student government executive branch. Casalegno also confirmed that past problems that hampered the elections have been identified and fixed for future elections. Along with the examination of student government elections, there is a debate as to the overall effectiveness of Student Senate. Other universities are striving to increase the presence and influence of their governments on campus.

Many student governments are reaching out to their peers via their websites. The University of Pittsburgh’s Student Government Board encourages participation by featuring up-to-date meeting times and recent student government decisions. Each Pitt board member has his or her own individual blog to post office hours and collect feedback from students.

American University, located in Washington, D.C., features blogs as well as an online magazine that provides detailed information about committee actions and an explanation of responsibilities for each government position.

In contrast, the information on Carnegie Mellon’s Senate website is not regularly updated. Its most recent meeting announcements are for the fall of 2006, and the latest blog entry was made in January 2007. There is little, if any, information about the individual Student Senators.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one university that is working to overcome a divided community and to increase participation in student government.

“MIT’s student government is unique in large part because MIT’s culture is unique,” said Ali Wynne, vice president of MIT’s Undergraduate Association (UA), MIT’s student government. “Furthermore, the campus is quite decentralized insofar as there isn’t much — indeed, there’s a pronounced aversion to the notion — of a ‘macrocommunity.’ It’s far better to think of the institute as comprising a mosaic of countless microcommunities.”

The UA is composed of a system of class councils with one council representing each class year. MIT also allows students to get involved by representing their living areas. Similar to Carnegie Mellon and many other schools, MIT also has subcommittees dedicated to particular areas of student life.

While Carnegie Mellon’s student government usually gathers in a regular room for meetings, MIT’s UA uses its meetings as an opportunity to connect with the campus community.

“We regularly inform students of various ways in which they can become involved in the UA and encourage them to run in elections,” Wynne said. “The UA has ‘traveling’ meetings that are held in different locations on campus. We want to put a face on the UA and show that we’re not only reaching out to a few constituencies.”

However, student skepticism is the largest obstacle many student governments must overcome.

Students often voice concerns over student government having enough actual influence to be able to make a noticeable change on campus. Sara Minton, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, said that she has never voted in a student election because it didn’t seem like the candidates had enough power to make a difference.

“I don’t know very much about student government, but I wouldn’t think it would be very effective because I feel like an agenda is already set, and I don’t think SGB [Student Government Board] could do much to change that,” she said.
However, Minton also admitted that there are many ways for her to become involved if she wished.

Wynne also tries to increase participation and trust in student government at MIT by connecting with students individually. “If I meet someone who seems particularly passionate about student life issues, I’ll oftentimes ask him or her to consider applying to serve on a given committee or run for an office,” she said.

Although Casalegno expressed that it was too soon to state any definite changes that will occur within Student Senate here, she does believe that Carnegie Mellon’s student government will overcome its past problems and continue to improve in the future.

“Carnegie Mellon’s student government has the potential to effect great change and influence on our campus,” Casalegno said. “Currently, Senators, GSA representatives, and the executive branch give voice to the issues, ideas, and needs of students by meeting with various administrators and campus collaborators and working to continually improve the student experience at Carnegie Mellon.”