Investigating Stuyvesant’s Uncontested Elections
Concerns arise amidst the uncontested Student Union, Junior Caucus, and Senior Caucus elections for the 2021-2022 school year.
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In the 2021-2022 school year, Daniel Jung and Andrey Sokolov were elected as Junior Caucus co-presidents, Cynthia Tan and Elio Torres as Senior Caucus president and vice president, and Shivali Korgaonkar and Ryan Lee as Student Union (SU) president and vice president, respectively. All three tickets were elected into office without opposing tickets, an occurrence unprecedented in Stuyvesant election history.
This year, the campaign process began with petitioning collected with Google Forms due to the virtual environment. Though the number of signatures needed to qualify to run varies each year, SU candidates had to acquire at least 40 signatures across all grades this year while caucus candidates needed at least 75 signatures within their respective grade. The traditional campaigning process that comes after petitioning was condensed, and voting was eliminated entirely.
A platform, which describes the ticket’s goals and ideas for serving the student body, is not required for an uncontested election, but all three uncontested tickets released platforms this year. “Having a platform, especially in an uncontested election, is one of the biggest parts [...] of running just because you set a standard for students and you let them know that this election and this term isn’t necessarily what had happened in previous years,” junior and SU President Shivali Korgaonkar said.
With a condensed and less interactive campaign period this year, candidates had to rely on their campaign platform to relay their visions to the student body. “Uncontested races [...] nullify one of the most important parts of the election process: the campaigning. Campaigning, to most students, can be the most exciting part of student government as it allows them to analyze each ticket and directly influence policy for the next year,” Junior Caucus Co-Presidents Andrey Sokolov and Daniel Jung said in an e-mail interview.
The three uncontested elections this year fueled concerns that a lack of competition and campaign period can harm the active engagement and brainstorming that a more competitive election fosters. “Students at Stuyvesant, and [at] any school, deserve to have multiple options to choose from when it comes to their representatives, and regardless of whether or not the people who are uncontested are going to do a really good job or not, it promotes a sense of innovation when people are running against you,” Senior Caucus Co-President Katerina Corr said.
Some feel that the trend of uncontested elections over the last few years may be indicative of a greater trend of apathy toward student government. “I’m not sure, in my years at Stuy, if there’s ever been a year where there hasn’t been at least one ticket that [was contested],” Corr said. “I don’t think that apathy toward student government is an issue that’s unique to Stuyvesant, but we definitely do have a lot of uncontested elections.”
There is additional speculation that the apathy may have been exacerbated by the virtual environment. “Students are really focused on their academics and extracurriculars, and student government races might not always be at the front of their mind,” Corr said. “When it’s a virtual environment and you don’t have the same sort of opportunities to gain experience at school as you might otherwise if you were learning in school, taking that leap of faith to decide to run for caucus or SU might be a greater leap than it usually is.”
SU members also acknowledge perceived notions surrounding the SU within the student body. “There’s a stigma there whoever gets this position or whoever wins that will have that set, and I think what that does is [...] make [students] hesitant to run or even give student input,” sophomore and SU Vice President Ryan Lee said. “We want to create an environment where the SU feels like [...] an organization [the student body] can rely on or relate to.”
Still, others expressed concerns about the lack of approachability given the direction of the SU in recent years. “The SU has become more and more of a professional body, more institutionalized, and more effective,” social studies teacher and Coordinator of Student Affairs Matthew Polazzo said in an e-mail interview. “It might be that the SU has become more administration than students.”
Last year’s Freshman Caucus elections saw 16 tickets, but the figure reduced to four for sophomore caucus elections. Despite the large number of running tickets for Freshman Caucus, the number dwindles significantly by junior, senior, and even sophomore year.
A reason could be that the ticket already established in student government may seem intimidating and discourage new tickets to run. “The status quo is so deeply ingrained into the system that the victory of certain people is considered natural and unavoidable. When I ran last year, a lot of friends warned me I had no chance,” junior Daniel Lyalin, who ran for Junior Caucus for the 2020-2021 school year, said in an e-mail interview.
Social media could also play into fear of the incumbent ticket. “It used to be that every race was super contested [...] because, before social media, no one really knew where they stood, their popularity and the rest of that, so you had wild cards coming up and all of that. So really in the last five years or so, [...] increasingly, the number of candidates has diminished, and [...] my guess is that it has to do with the proliferation of social media, which means there are some people who underestimate themselves, think they can never win if they tried, and who knows, they might have won if they had tried,” Polazzo said.
Others believe students may simply not feel a need to run because of a ticket’s history of successful leadership. “Uncontested elections generally occur after a caucus or SU President and Vice President have already served one term and were deemed successful by most of the student body,” Sophomore Caucus Co-President Margaret Mikhalevsky said in an e-mail interview. “This successful presidency generally means that not as many students may run the next year if they don’t really feel much reason to do so,”
However, some are unsatisfied with the possibility of uncontested elections eliminating the need for voting processes, highlighting flaws such as the lack of an impeachment policy. “The current SU Constitution does not allow for impeachment to be started by students, only a Cabinet member. Candidates who ran uncontested and didn't get voted into office have no mandate from their base and can easily get away with not delivering on their promises or only half-delivering,” Lyalin said. “If an uncontested election still required votes to be placed, perhaps through a yes-or-no ballot, even just as a formality, it would at least allow the SU to see whether people want to vote for this candidate.”
Furthermore, students believe apathy to be a two-way street, calling attention to the responsibility of SU and caucus leaders to tackle it. “You could blame the student for not being active enough, but that ignores the larger obligation leaders have to connect with their votes, despite apathy,” Lyalin said.
Others echo this sentiment. “There have been times where I’ve heard from peers that they are upset that they wish they had numerous options. It definitely forces the ‘elected’ student government to work harder in order to prove themselves to the students,” junior and Board of Elections Director Ava Yap said in an e-mail interview.
SU representatives have expressed intentions to actively counter student apathy through initiatives like town halls. “At the town hall, we had to answer a variety of general and specific questions about our plans for the coming year. We feel that healthy and welcome events like this in the future bolster a connection between candidates and the student body,” Senior Caucus Co-President Cynthia Tan said.
Looking forward, the SU hopes to foster a better relationship with the student body to combat a lack of interest. “The SU was meant to serve as a Union for students, which seems kind of obvious, but [...] oftentimes, Stuyvesant students think that the SU is this [...] distinct government that works away from the students,” Korgaonkar said. “We’re going to prioritize creating channels that allow students to easily give us feedback and make their voice heard. [...] At the end of the day, someone interested in running for a student office or student position has to be interested in joining the SU and it’s our job to make the SU accessible.”