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Turnout up, skepticism remains

Julie Bender | Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Though Dave Baron and Lizzi Shappell were officially declared the winners of the student body presidential elections last week, student perception of this year’s campaign season did not prove to be as clear-cut as the election results. Voter turnout saw a significant increase in comparison to recent years, but apathy and negativity toward student government remained strong undercurrents.

The winning margin was slim in this year’s runoff, with Baron and Shappell 235 votes ahead of the runner-ups, James Leito and Jordan Bongiovanni. Baron and Shappell finished with 52.88 percent of the vote, claiming majorities in the freshman, junior and senior classes.

In total, 4,287 votes were cast in this year’s election, which represents 52.7 percent or just more than half of the student body. This year’s runoff election saw an increased voter turnout over other recent elections, with 763 more voters participating than last year’s election, and 574 more voters than in the 2003 election.

President-elect Dave Baron credits the increased voter turnout to the recent U.S. presidential election.

“Student interest at the national level of politics was high this year, and I think that carries over to the most local political process – our school elections,” Baron said.

Despite the closeness of this year’s election and the increased voter turnout, many students remain apathetic to the election process and cynical about the role of student body president. Though reasons for apathy surrounding the election were varied, a recurring sentiment among students was student government’s apparent lack of power.

“I didn’t vote this year because I hadn’t paid much attention to the campaigns,” said junior Kendra Harmon. “Anyway, not too much usually changes at the University based on the elections. In my years at Notre Dame, I haven’t noticed any significant changes as a result of who is the student body president.”

Shantha Ready, a senior, agreed with Harmon that the accomplishments of the office of the president often do not depend on who is elected.

“In past years, student government has always done a decent job, so I had full confidence that whoever ended up in office would be fine,” she said. “I voted, but didn’t care much about the outcome.”

When questioned further, Ready cited the authority of higher University officials as the main reason for her belief that student government has little power at Notre Dame.

“With the Board of Trustees and other officials who have the final say, I really don’t think that student government can do what they say they will,” she said. “On a small scale, they accomplish great things, but some of the loftier goals will likely remain lofty and distant.”

Steve Tutaj, a senior who did not vote, shared this sentiment.

“The higher-ups dominate University policy no matter what. Student government has proven over the years that they can’t bring back Everclear, kegs or SYRs even though that’s what the majority of students want,” Tutaj said. “They just don’t have the power.”

Among students who did vote in this year’s election, many were still skeptical about the candidate promises and the role of student government at the University.

“I voted for the Baron-Shappell ticket,” said junior John Harrington, “but overall I feel the election was irrelevant. During my time at Notre Dame so far, I haven’t noticed the changes the candidates say they’ll make, and I doubt this year will be any different. And anyway, it seems to be a guy-girl ticket that usually wins the election regardless of the actual campaign strategy and promises.”

Erin O’Neill, a freshman who also voted for Baron and Shappell, said that she did not put much faith in the campaign promises.

“I thought the Baron-Shappell ticket had some good ideas, but most were pretty unrealistic,” she said. “For example, their concert endowment idea doesn’t seem very probable.”

A few students said that it is this perception – of candidates proposing improbable campaign ideas year in and year out – that has decreased their faith in student government.

“I think ideas like the Flex-10 meal plan that many candidates offered is a great idea, but in reality, I don’t feel that student government has the influence to make that sort of change,” freshman Jessica Lau said.

Senior Mary Laski agreed that student government’s solid ideas – and even strong stances – often don’t translate into follow-through.

“From what I have noticed in past years, candidates campaign with great ideas – concerts is always a big one – but they never really come through on these promises, which makes me think that they don’t have the power to implement change,” she said. “One example is if you look at something like the University’s ban on hard alcohol and SYRs implemented a few years ago – students were outraged about this sudden change, but the student government lacked the power to do anything about it. I think that incident in particular has weakened faith in the government.”

Baron himself acknowledged the overall negative opinion on student government, but he has a different view on the matter.

“I think what students need to realize is that we’re not actually a government,” Baron said. “Our legislation is not binding; we’re not sovereign, but instead we function more like a labor union. The only way we can impact policy is if we garner the student voice collectively behind us. I think the frustrations students feel about student government are felt by those in elected roles as well – and actually, those frustrations are magnified at the higher level.”

Even with the general negative view of student government, there were some voters who believe this year’s winning ticket does show potential for change at the school. Many students said they cast their votes for Baron and Shappell because the pair’s platform had the most realistic ideas.

For senior Megan McCormick, the dedication to volunteerism is what attracted her to vote for Baron and Shappell.

“That’s an important topic, especially at Notre Dame, where so many students are involved in service-related activities,” McCormick said. “To address those kind of issues shows how in-tune Baron and Shappell are to the things that are important to students here. Plus, service is something that the student government realistically can impact.”

April Garcia, another senior, also credited the pragmatic ideas of the Baron-Shappell platform as essential in giving them the win.

“Baron and Shappell’s ideas were pretty solid and seemed realistic enough to implement,” she said, pointing out that Baron and Shappell addressed problems specific to Notre Dame students, such as diversity.

“Diversity is something the University is actively working on from year to year,” Garcia said. “The fact that Baron and Shappell gave diversity prominence in their campaign, and that they had specific ideas for diversity improvement is why I voted for them.”

With Baron and Shappell set to take office in April, their abilities to keep campaign promises and to prove they carry weight at the University will be key in maintaining a high voter turnout next year. For underclassmen, and freshmen in particular, what this year’s elected representatives accomplish will impact students’ voting patterns in the next several years.

Colleen McCaughan, a freshman voter this year, said she has faith in Baron and Shappell but that next year’s results will speak for themselves.

“They got my vote because both candidates came to the dorm and visited rooms individually before the run-off vote,” she said. “If [Baron and Shappell] showed that kind of dedication during the voting process, I have faith they’ll continue to be dedicated to the students now that they’ve earned their offices. I guess we’ll know for sure next year if this is true or not.”