Losing Experiences

by Phil Aubart | 5/6/09 2:32am

Two weeks since the election, I can only say that my run for Student Assembly vice president was an experience. I would like to share some observations about both the process of running for office at Dartmouth and the current and future state of the Assembly.

Currently, the Assembly is irrelevant in the minds of students. Even many Assembly members and active participants (such as Assembly Vice President-elect Cory Cunningham '10) acknowledge the fact that most Dartmouth students just don't care about the Assembly, and probably can't explain -- beyond naming a task force or co-sponsored party -- what the Assembly actually does. Thus, the campaign delved into how to make the student body care more about Student Assembly -- its elections and its work. Unfortunately, these "debates" about what to do were held in front of ever-smaller crowds of students. Indeed, by the last debate, sponsored by the Elections Planning and Advisory Committee, the crowd consisted of only a handful of students.

As happens every year, it seems, Assembly members heavily supported one of the candidates. Unsurprisingly, that candidate (Frances Vernon '10) won. It makes sense -- members have the most at stake in any given Assembly election. Unfortunately, the change that Student Assembly needs is very unlikely to come from within. The current crop of Assembly participants has failed to make the organization relevant to the student body as a whole. I don't see how our new president, heavily supported by the Assembly, will change this. Vernon did not lay out concrete plans for improving student participation in Student Assembly. She may plan to open executive board meetings once a term, but she must do more to entice people outside of the Assembly to be interested enough to show up.

The issue is a catch-22. In order for people to care about student government, we need people who are not currently in Student Assembly to take charge, inject fresh ideas and shake things up. But for people who are not currently involved to get elected, we need voters to care about the Assembly. Caring about Student Assembly will translate into caring about the candidates enough to vote for the best candidate, whereas merely caring about the candidates quickly turns elections into popularity contests.

Thus, this year, Student Assembly will remain unimportant to the majority of students here at Dartmouth. I would like to point out that this is not an entirely negative thing. It is a shame that we missed an opportunity to revolutionize our student government and to have people buy into the system, but it's not as if Student Assembly has a net negative effect on Dartmouth. It is a positive institution, but it just isn't as effective as it could be.

I also hope that the current members can somehow make the Assembly important to the average student, but I doubt that will happen.

The challenge is a big one. Even towards the end of the week of campaigning, I ran into people who still weren't aware that elections were about to happen. Clearly, putting up posters may not be the most effective means to disseminate information. It's hard to get people who don't care about something to care long enough to vote. And that's an even harder thing to do running for vice president. Five-hundred fewer people voted for vice president than for president. Voting for one position, but not the other saves three seconds of actual voting time. Apathy is the strongest force in our elections.

Unfortunately, the pre-election debates don't reduce this apathy. They're essentially question-and-answer sessions that could be just as easily written out on paper. A series of back and forth exchanges between candidates would draw people in to watch the debates, and indirectly get more people thinking about the issues.

To those who criticize Student Assembly for being incompetent and ineffectual, you must take an active interest in elections.

Finally, I wish Vernon and Cunningham the very best of luck in leading Student Assembly next year. It's unfortunate that so few will care about what they do.