Uncontested race in KU Student Senate elections suggests continuing apathy

photo by: Associated Press

A bus passes in front of Strong Hall on Nov. 16, 2015, on the University of Kansas campus.

A low turnout for Student Senate election at the University of Kansas is nothing new. But this year, the government organization achieved a new low in lack of student involvement.

The 2019 Student Senate election, which took place in early April, was the first uncontested race for student body president in the organization’s 50-year history, said Andrew Moore, a student researcher for KU History, a department within the KU Memorial Union that researches the history of the university.

While the election resulted in a historic victory for new student-body president Tiara Floyd, the first woman of color elected to the position, only 2,200 votes were cast, a turnout just shy of 9%.

According to KU Elections data, the turnout was a significant drop from the year before, when 5,000 more students cast a vote, for a 29% turnout.

The drop in turnout may have occurred because of the uncontested race at the top of the ballot. Alex Kunz, a junior from Olathe, said he has voted in every election during his time at KU — until this past month.

“I didn’t bother to vote because there was only one coalition,” he said. “It feels like it invalidates my choice, because I don’t have anything to pick from.”

Educating voters

Riley Miller, a senior from Overland Park, said she has only voted once in Student Senate elections when she was working for KJHK, a student-run radio station on campus that receives some funding from the government organization. But other than that, she said she doesn’t know much about what student government really does.

“I feel like there isn’t a lot of information out there, but maybe I’m just not paying attention,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know if they make that much of a difference.”

Nia Malone, a sophomore from Denver, said she did not vote this year, noting that she had not heard much about it this semester. She said she thought the student government needed to do a better job of reaching out to the general student population to showcase the issues.

“I think it’s just important to inform students,” she said.

She said that without such active outreach, students would see the elections the same way they saw them in high school: Students run on platforms with grand ideas that they lack the power to accomplish.

The reality is that KU’s Student Senate does have power within the university, deciding each year how thousands of dollars are distributed among student organizations. They also are the student voice in other areas of higher education, including the University Senate, a shared-governance organization at KU, and the Kansas Board of Regents, a state government-appointed board that provides oversight for higher education in Kansas.

Floyd said she knew student involvement had been low in the past, but it’s a tricky issue to tackle. While outreach to the campus community is always a goal for Student Senate, she said she was hopeful that she and her staff could find new ways to get students involved. But what how they could do that isn’t quite clear.

“From speaking with other people, it seems like campus has become overwhelmingly apathetic, and I’m not sure why,” she told the Journal-World via email. “I definitely think it’s a problem, but I am not 100% sure how to fix it.”

Greek-affiliation effect

Kunz thinks the reason no other coalition ran against Floyd’s Crimson & Blue this year is because Rise KU, a coalition with few ties to greek organizations on campus, worked hard to get elected in 2018, but still came up short to the greek-affiliated coalition.

Last year, Noah Ries and the Crimson & Blue coalition defeated Zoya Khan and her Rise KU coalition, receiving 52% of the vote. Rise KU received 38% of the vote, about 1,1000 fewer votes, and a third coalition, Jayhawkers, received 10% of the vote, according to KU Elections data.

“I think that may have discouraged coalitions this year because they saw how hard Rise KU worked to get support of a bunch of different organizations and people who weren’t in greek (organizations),” Kunz said. “But it didn’t matter. (Rise KU) still lost by 1,000 votes.”

Kahn said Thursday that she did not find it surprising the greek-affiliated party came out on top, suggesting nongreek coalitions are fighting an uphill battle.

“No matter how viable a coalition’s platforms are, how engaged they are with diverse peoples and perspectives, or how experienced the individuals are; the ‘Greek coalition’ will always have the numbers to win,” she said in an email to the Journal-World. “The question is not about students who care, but rather the silence a monolithic institution imposes through a body that does not represent outsiders in a system built to exclude.”

This year Floyd, a member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority, ran on the Crimson & Blue coalition. She told the Journal-World in April her team was gearing up for a challenger they assumed would cause a contentious election, but for whatever reason no one chose to run against her. Without a challenger, the greek-affiliated coalition went on to win again.

Those who spoke to the Journal-World didn’t seem to mind the greek dominance. Neither Miller, Malone nor Kunz is affiliated with fraternities or sororities, but none of them suggested that “greekness” is a problem for the student government.

Instead, Miller said the greek dominance was likely the result of the greek system being already highly organized compared with the rest of campus. She said greek organizations were generally more knowledgeable about campus resources.

“It’s more accessible for them to be involved,” she said. “They are made aware of their resources from the very beginning. For me, personally, it’s my senior year and I realized all of the resources I had available to me that I wasn’t aware of. I think Greek life has the upper hand in that aspect.”

Additionally, when it comes to student elections, the organized greek institutions just seem to care more and that helps them win the elections more often than not, Kunz said.

“I don’t see it necessarily see it as a problem. It’s more of an accomplishment for Greek life,” Kunz said. “They are the most dedicated and most solid set of voters.”

Contact Dylan Lysen

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact University of Kansas, higher education, state government reporter Dylan Lysen:


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