In 2014, Tennessee ranked 50 out of 51 in voter turnout across the United States, only beating Texas by a measly 1 percent.
This is a problem that has plagued Tennessee politicians for years. According to a PEW Charitable Trust study on the Elections Performance Index, Tennessee has been part of the bottom 20 percent in voter turnout for years now. Tennessee ranked 43 in 2008, 49 in 2010, 46 in 2012, and finally 50 in 2014.
Such low voter turnout causes problems for both nationwide and local legislation and often leads to the people feeling that their voice is unheard. This problem also resides on the level of education through the lens of student government. Few students know the purpose of organizations such as the Student Government Association, or SGA, and fewer still vote in semester elections.
“Personally, I think that voter turn-out has been so low purely because people don’t know much about SGA, so they don’t care about what we do or who is a member,” said Executive Secretary Hailee Crawford. “Myself and the rest of the Executive Council, along with our Faculty Advisors, think that this is an egregious disservice to the student body, and we are hoping to change that this year. I think that the only way to get people interested in elections is to get them interested in the organization, and that starts with the spread of information and a call to action.”
It is true that very little information is readily available to the student body at Austin Peay State University. Information is available online and in handbooks, but very little is done to draw attention to SGA and its elections. Though no solid numbers could be provided, SGA officials confirm that voting numbers have decreased in previous years and have otherwise remained stagnant.
SGA claims to “serve as the voice of the student body” and is comprised of Legislative, Judicial, and Executive branches. SGA also has a Tribunal which is heralded as the highest student court available on campus. The Tribunal hears student traffic appeals, but is also responsible for interpreting the SGA Constitution, By-Laws and the Electoral Act. Works of the Tribunal first pass through the Senate, which is responsible for forming Acts and Resolutions that may change and improve student life.
Campus life would not be the same without organizations such as SGA. Members of SGA pride themselves on being able to improve Austin Peay State University and the surrounding community. However, they are unable to properly do so without the voice of the student body. Students are always encouraged to vote, but it’s impossible without proper communication.
When asked for an opinion on why voter turnout is so low, Jerrianna Thompson said, “Despite the constant push for voting … I don’t think it’s pushed here and I don’t think that people here necessarily care as much as other places do.”
When asked about being registered to vote, Brooklyn Harvey said, “I didn’t know how to register, so I didn’t do it.” And again, on the low statistics, “College students don’t know how to vote.”
Another student, Baily Ford, laughed when asked about voting in student elections and said, “Yeah, when I was forced to.”
The problem is reflected on both a campus and statewide scale. Tennessee is a state with 95 counties and only five have voter turnout that ranks above average. For comparison, according to a study conducted in 2017 by the University of Tennessee, the four most populous cities of Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville hardly tipped the scale with voter turnout percentages ranking in the second and third quartiles. On the same scale, Montgomery county ranked as one of the lowest quartiles across the state.
This same number shows in student elections through a general lack of interest and low voter turnouts. Members of SGA such as Hailee Crawford have been trying to change this statistic for years and trying to turn the tide of student interest.
“This year, my personal goal is just to get students involved and invested in Student Government,” she said. “There are tons of things I’d like to resolve, but I don’t think any big changes can be made on campus without a strong foundation and backing from the student body. My personal aim is to open up the line of communication between students and their representatives, in an attempt to begin to form this foundation.”
After the upcoming student elections, SGA meetings will resume the following Wednesday at 5pm. Students are always encouraged to drop in, listen and perhaps give their opinions, but members of SGA are constantly disappointed by a lack of any visitors at all.
“I think that the only way to get people interested in elections is to get them interested in the organization, and that starts with the spread of information and a call to action … I think that if we can get passionate students into senate meetings, and get these students involved and invested in what is happening on their campus and in their community, elections will be prioritized for more students than in previous years.”
Seats for Freshman and Graduate Senators opened on Wednesday, Aug. 29 and voting takes place this week on Sept. 4-7.