In the 2017 Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) elections, only 750 of the roughly 2,000 members of the Macalester student body voted for a candidate for MCSG president. 164 members of the rising senior class (of just under 500 students) voted for senior class representative. Lower voter turnout is one of several problems faced by MCSG; others include a history of poor representation of students of color and a disconnect between MCSG and students.
Low voter turnout has been a trend for several years, something the members of MCSG are acutely aware of. Cole Ware ’17, a senior class representative, believes that the low turnout is a symptom of MCSG’s struggle to effectively self-promote to the student body and make clear why MCSG’s work matters. “In my view, this lack of understanding of MCSG’s role is mostly on us,” Ware said. Andy Han ’19, a sophomore* class representative, shared a similar sentiment: “The Macalester community still doesn’t know MCSG very well. Therefore, they are not as inclined to vote, especially less so if the ballot comes in the form of an email.”
The format of the ballots also appears to contribute to the low voter turnout. Abby McEvers ’19 said, “I didn’t vote this election because the format is always wonky on my screen. I just never remembered the election when I was on my computer,” McEvers said. Lucy Lange ’19 commented, “I wasn’t familiar with any of the candidates’ platforms; I usually only open emails that pertain to my classes and my daily activities.” While Stephanie Shimota ’17 did vote in the most recent election, it was not automatic. “Some of my friends were talking about voting while we were eating dinner together, and I remembered that I had looked at the email that was sent out earlier but hadn’t voted yet,” Shimota said. “If my friends hadn’t been talking about it, I probably would have forgotten to vote.”
Han shared some ideas about how he thinks Macalester’s low turnout could be remedied. “While e-mail polls are convenient, MCSG could set up poll booths, not just laptops on tables, to draw people in,” Han suggested. However, he acknowledged that while this would help, MCSG needs to find a way to reach the student body and educate the Macalester community on what MCSG does.
Many students appear to not fully understand what MCSG does, minimizing the organization’s perceived presence on the Macalester Campus. In what MCSG’s constitution calls its “State of Purpose,” the group’s role is defined as being “to ensure direct student participation in campus governance, to uphold and protect the rights and freedoms of the Student Body as expressed in the Students’ Rights, Freedoms, and Responsibilities document, to incorporate the needs and desires of the Student Body.” With such little attention paid to MCSG and the State of Purpose, students often forget to vote in the annual elections. McEvers believes that “MCSG is a good thing. I’m not really clear on everything that they do.” Much like McEvers, Jake Heasley ’20 is not fully aware of what MCSG does: “I don’t really have any opinions on MCSG in general. It hasn’t done anything that I disagree with, but I guess that I’m not exposed to it enough to form an educated opinion.” This lack of exposure is a key aspect in the student body’s understanding of MCSG as an organization and student government.
Suveer Daswani ’18, MCSG president-elect for the coming academic year, agreed that the student body is not always aware of what MCSG is accomplishing. Students may not vote because there is no apparent reason to do so. Daswani raised another potential reason for low turnout: “When we talk about executive elections where the entire student body can vote, seniors are involved in that too, and I think a lot of seniors don’t know that they are eligible to vote.”
One senior, Zane Vorhes-Gripp ’17, ran as a write-in in the recent MCSG election. According to Vorhes-Gripp, the campaign was not meant to be a critique of MCSG, but rather a joke for the senior class. Although seniors may know they are eligible to vote, some chose to use their vote for a write-in who would not be attending Macalester the following academic year. Those graduating in the spring will not be around when Daswani and other newly elected members take office.
Daswani is hoping to start an informal, casual conversation called Panini With Your President, a conversation open to the student body to interact with the president, other executive members such as the vice president and various chairs of the subcommittees as well as those who work in MCSG’s subcommittees. Daswani offered this idea as a possible solution to engage the student body. By engaging with the student body, Daswani hopes to communicate what MCSG does. He hopes that this engagement will lead to higher voter turnout and improve communication and understanding between the student body and MCSG.
While Ware recognizes that “MCSG is far from perfect, and it can be frustrating to work with,” he believes that MCSG can make meaningful improvements to students’ lives. Similarly to Ware, Han highlighted the importance of college politics and making one’s voice heard. “If you don’t let your voice be heard, then MCSG cannot be effective,” Han said. Han is a part of the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC), which has helped to develop the Textbook Reserve Program, the Alumni Fair and Midterm Coffee and Donuts. Han also worked to implement the Book Bank program, through which students can take or donate books for free outside the Student Government office.**
Daswani said, “I think MCSG has a lot of potential, and students need to know what.” Yet Daswani said that if students do not vote, they do not have the right to complain about election results. The relationship between MCSG and the student body is a two-way street and that change cannot be accomplished if students do not vote for representatives they truly support. “I still see a lot of areas where MCSG can build on effective and efficient communication with the student body. Students don’t know what MCSG is doing, and I think that definitely needs to change. Because MCSG has a great amount of potential, resources and quite a lot of people,” Daswani said.
Marco Hernández ’19, a former class representative, felt that MCSG was not living up to its own potential and he was deeply disappointed with MCSG’s political neutrality during the 2016-2017 school year. After the election of President Trump, Hernández hoped MCSG would release a statement to the student body addressing the recent news. That didn’t happen. “I was so flabbergasted, disappointed and saddened by this, because they chose not to say anything,” Hernández said. He cited the inaction as his main reason for leaving MCSG.
Now that Hernández has left MCSG, he sees a disconnect between the student body and MCSG. “When I was a representative, I used to know what was going on the whole time. I was like, ‘How do these people outside not know? We’re always reaching out to them,’ ” Hernández said. However, from his new place outside the organization, Hernández realizes that this communication is not as clear as it appeared from the MCSG side. “They mostly hear from students’ organizations and not from students themselves,” Hernández said.
In Hernández’s view, the ideal MCSG would be less attentive to the student organizations and more closely focused on the study body. While MCSG meetings are open to everyone, and it is not the intent of MCSG to be exclusive, Hernández would like to move the meetings to a more central location to increase foot-traffic, instead of in Weyerhaeuser.
Daswani acknowledges that while the representation in MCSG is not perfect, MCSG is taking steps to make sure more voices are heard. MCSG recently created the the new role of Diversity and Inclusion Officer. who will be in charge of strengthening diversity initiatives in the Macalester community and MCSG as well as advocate for the needs of minority and underrepresented groups on campus. Another idea Daswani hopes to utilize is having a compulsory time allocated every Tuesday meeting to bring students who are not on MCSG but want to come to share their perspectives. This portion of the meeting would act as a way to directly engage with the student body and hopefully improve communication between the student body and MCSG. According to Daswani, it would be “a time that is specifically allocated for the students to express their concerns and interact with the elected representatives.”
While Hernández was a representative for MCSG, he felt tokenized as a student of color. He said he felt “like it was on us to keep on reminding them that not everything is based on chartering orgs and finances – the student government is there to help address the issues that are happening at Macalester, and not only Macalester, but the surrounding community and the country as well.” That’s something Hernández acknowledged is improving after the recent election, in which several students mentioned diversity in their campaign biographies. “Before there was not a single black representative. Now it’s becoming more representative of what the campus and demographics look like,” Hernández commented. Both Hernández and Han encourage students to run for positions in MCSG. “I encourage people who have never ran for MCSG to do that, because it will give a different life to our student government, a different feel,” Hernández said. For Han, MCSG cannot be effective without student input. “If you start voicing your concerns via votes and suggestions***, then MCSG becomes a formidable force that can bring about real change to campus,” he said.
MCSG appears to be taking steps to both ensure student involvement in MCSG as well as protecting students’ rights and freedoms. On February 27, 2017 MCSG sent an email to the student body containing an open letter, an action plan and statements of solidarity from members of MCSG. Part of the open letter stated that political neutrality will not longer be a stance MCSG takes on issues. In the email, MCSG also promoted the “Protest Bus, a project to provide transportation for Mac students to protests you want to attend over the coming months.” The email promised a soon-to-come survey for students to “give input on which protests matter most” or to which transportation may be difficult to arrange.
Despite these steps MCSG is taking, there still seems to be a significant gap between what is understood by the student body and what MCSG is truly accomplishing. Across the board from first years to seniors, the knowledge of what precisely MCSG does seems to be lost on students, many feeling neutral toward the student government because they simply do not know what it does. Many of the same students did not vote, some forgetting and others lacking the motivation. The Macalester community prides itself on activism and it is peculiar to have the most local of politics at Macalester easily forgotten in many students’ lives.
*In the print article, it was printed that Andy Han was a junior class representative
**Han’s position has been amended to accurately reflect his roles
***In the print article, “via votes and suggestions” was omitted