The Associated Students of Portland State University are partnering with the Oregon Student Association and other organizations to prepare for student government elections with a focus in student voter turnout.
The student government elections have had an average 5 percent voter turnout since 1994. Turnout fell as low as 2 percent in 2013—569 students out of the 29,000 enrolled that year.
“Student government election [turnout] has been typically low, and a lot of that is because this is a commuter campus and there are a lot of folks that have families and jobs, that don’t have a lot of time to focus on what’s happening here on campus,” said Jessie Spinney, OSA campus organizer at PSU. “While I’m encouraging people to register to vote for state, local and national elections, they should also be civically engaged on campus as well and participate in the elections that happen here.”
Despite the low turnout, the years with referendums on the ballot have a spike, with almost 9 percent of the student body voting in 2004 for the referendum to pass the Student Rec Center fee. This year, student voters will weigh in on the Smith Memorial Student Union 2020 referendum, a proposal to fund reconstruction of the existing SMSU. ASPSU hopes this will get more students to vote in the student elections.
“We want to have weight on that referendum,” said Candace Avalos, coordinator of student government relations and Greek life advisor. “If overwhelmingly students want it, it has some weight when we give to the president saying we want to impose this fee to build a new student union.”
ASPSU’s goal for this year’s election is to get a 10 percent turnout, around 3,000 students.
Working out of the ASPSU office, OSA is hosting the Vote OR Vote campaign. OSA volunteers will be tabling and clipboarding on campus throughout the month, as well as doing over 200 class wraps and presentations to register students to vote for the presidential and primary elections. Additionally, they will speak to students about voting in the student government elections.
“There’s so many things a student has to do in their daily life and it’s really hard to find time to vote,” said Zia Laboff, OSA volunteer and senator candidate for ASPSU. “We’re just trying to make it easier for people.”
Liela Forbes, currently legislative affairs director for ASPSU and also running for ASPSU president, heads the Vote OR Vote campaign as part of the Civic Engagement Initiative.
“With the excitement around elections, we’re also saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to decide also who is going to represent you on campus,’” Forbes said.
Forbes orchestrated a campaign survey earlier this year in which 10 percent of the student body participated. She is hopeful that ASPSU can achieve those numbers as well.
In addition to working with the OSA, ASPSU is live election polling in the Park Blocks on April 14 and April 16. Portland State Professional Sound will be providing live music, and free food will be available at polling stations.
To further promote the student elections, ASPSU will also have a reusable banner for the skybridges.
“We’re just trying to focus on getting that visibility out there,” Avalos said.
ASPSU will be hosting candidate debates on April 6 from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. at Parkway North.
“There’s a lot of power to be held in that office and ability to change things for students on campus,” said Mario Parker-Milligan, OSA executive director. “But we have to vote for people. I think the debates are a good way to engage with candidates and ask them questions about their newfound power and authority, and how they’ll continue to represent students.”
ASPSU works on both a statewide level at the capitol and locally with the Board of Trustees. They helped pass the initiative to put ballot boxes on campus and increased support for the Oregon Promise Community College Initiative.
“Student government in college isn’t like student government in high school,” Forbes said. “We deal with very flex things—we shape policy on campus, we shape policy statewide. Our students were one of the most active involved in the state at the capitol.”
Forbes also pointed to student involvement in getting ballot boxes placed on campus.
“We can’t let that work slow down,” Forbes said. “We need students to recognize what’s at stake, and turn out to vote so that the people who are elected are the ones representing them.”
Polls for the student elections will open on April 11, and close on April 27. They will be located in between SMSU and Neuberger Hall. Free donuts will be provided.