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Reflections on Elections: Behind the Scenes of GW’s Student Elections

by Bob Wu (bobwu22@gwu.edu) and Kaitlyn Schmitt (kschmitt@gwu.edu)

The Joint Elections Commission (JEC) is a select group of five students responsible for administering the student body elections. Appointed in December 2017, the student members of the 2018 JEC recruited candidates, oversaw campaigning, and encouraged students to vote in elections for the Student Association, Program Board, and Class Council. This year, we undertook several new initiatives to improve the student body elections.

Comprehensive Candidate Recruitment

A campaign season is nonexistent without candidates, and this year’s Commission placed a high priority on recruiting candidates across the University’s spectrum of colleges and undergraduate and graduate populations. We employed a variety of strategies to inform students of both the ability to run for student government, and the importance it has to our campus community. In the weeks before candidate registration officially began, we created and placed individualized blurbs in each of the University’s college newsletters, informing students of the opportunity to run for office. We also tabled at the Spring Student Organization Fair and within District House, a large student hub on campus, providing handouts and additional details for interested candidates. Finally, in tandem with student government leadership, the Commission hosted three information sessions for prospective candidates to obtain campaign calendar details and receive tips from current leaders on running a successful campaign.

We were also intentional with our outreach to populations that traditionally don’t engage with elections in the same way as other students. One of the Commission's information sessions was hosted on GW’s Mount Vernon Campus, a portion of campus located about 3 miles from the Foggy Bottom campus where the University’s Politics and Values and Women’s Leadership Program communities reside. We also adjusted the Commission’s candidate registration rules to allow online and distance students to run for election by collecting digital signatures.

Improving the Candidate Experience

Student elections are often incredibly stressful for candidates involved. We aimed to alleviate fear and confusion whenever fairly possible. The Commission pushed all of its data submission requirements onto online forms, allowing candidates to submit poster and palm card designs, headshots and ballot statements, and information on campaign assistants over the Internet. Before every deadline or major event, the Commission distributed multiple reminders to candidates, highlighting potential pitfalls to reduce the likelihood of election violations. We also prioritized candidate safety throughout elections: quickly postponing the annual “Postering Day” campaign kick-off tradition to avoid dangerous wind gusts, and cancelling all campaigning and endorsement hearings on snow days.

These measures, though unexpected, were taken to ensure that candidates remained safe, and to maintain fairness to distance students, who faced difficulty reaching campus to campaign. Throughout the campaign season, we strove to be not only election regulators, but also advisors and advocates on behalf of candidates, aiming to make the entire process as fair and comfortable as possible. While it is impossible to measure how successful our interpersonal efforts were, this year’s election had significantly fewer campaign violations than in previous years, and all of them were filed against candidates for missing procedural candidate meetings.

Getting Out the Vote

The final part of an election are voters. Voting is by all means a consensual choice, but our Commission wanted to ensure that students were informed of their right to vote. In addition to “traditional” forms of advertisement, including social media advertisements and postering around campus, the Commission worked with campus partners in a variety of media forms to spread our message among the student body. The week before elections, we sent a “test ballot” to the entire population, allowing students to check and ensure their ballot was correctly assigned. We also reached out to current student government representatives, requesting information on how to best reach their communities .The information we received - ranging from prime “hangout” locations and contacts for college newsletters to umbrella student organizations and invitations into cohort-based Facebook groups - was critical in helping us spread our message broadly among the student body.

Finally, on the two days of elections, the Commission employed a massive outreach effort to increase turnout. During the thirty-six hours that voting portals were open, students received emails containing the voting links and reminders to vote from not only the Commission, but also the Student Association and the Multicultural Student Services Center. On Facebook and Twitter, individual colleges and University Offices (such as the International Students Office and the official GW University Twitter account) tweeted messages and videos the Commission had made encouraging students to vote. Finally, we established a “voting hub” where students could vote on provided laptops and receive a cookie as a thank-you for voting.

These efforts proved to be successful. The total votes cast were 4,187, which is a 52% increase from the previous year’s election. Please see the below infographic for a report on voter turnout.

What We Learned

  • Stakeholders Matter. By collaborating with current student government members, we were able to reach far more potential candidates and voters. This year, Student Association leadership embraced an active role in the elections process, mentoring potential candidates and encouraging current senators to return or recruit qualified replacements. These efforts were instrumental in spreading our message among the diverse GW student body.
  • More Candidates, More Voters. Turnout was much higher among constituencies who had a declared candidate running for election (as opposed to pure write-in options). Additionally, the race that had the highest turnout among colleges was the only election with more contested candidates than seats available. Competition between candidates drives up excitement and creates additional campaigning within a constituency, which then increases awareness and voting.
  • Candidates Matter, Too. Being an elections facilitator does not exclude someone from supporting all who run. Candidates make the ultimate sacrifice in campaigning, and those involved should try to be as helpful as possible while maintaining fairness. Even small things, like deadline reminders, highlighting potential rules violations, and addressing concerns with comprehensive answers makes a positive difference in how candidates feel as well.
  • Finally, Reach for Higher Fruit. We were successful because of everyone’s willingness to adopt an active role in shaping elections. From working with the University administration and its partners to market elections, to filming voting reminders with student government leaders, this Commission sought to be not
    only election regulators, but also advocates. In addition, we were blessed to receive support that was receptive to our ambitions. Successful student affairs advising stems from being supportive - unafraid to make recommendations,  but also respecting a student-driven process.

Bob Wu is a senior graduating in May 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, with a focus on public policy. He served as the Chair of the Joint Elections Commission in spring 2018. Bob will be attending law school at the University of California, Hastings.

Kaitlyn Schmitt is a Program Coordinator for Student Involvement in the Center for Student Engagement. She oversees student organization resources and training and directly advises 35 student organizations, including the Joint Elections Commission.

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