About 36 percent of the undergraduate student body, or 7,220 undergraduates, participated in the 2017 Associated Students Election, making it one of the higher voter turnout rates in the past decade.
Every year students get to choose new student government representatives and determine what services and programs around campus their student fees will fund.
Graph A was compiled using data from the UCSB Associated Students website. According to the numbers, UCSB saw a 5.01 percent increase this year from 2015.
At first glance, the turnout rates from 2005 to 2017 don’t look impressive. According to 2008, 2012 and 2016 surveys by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, these numbers are way below 50 percent — the average presidential election turnout of people aged 18-29.
On the other hand, UCSB’s A.S. election voter turnout rates, ranging from a low of about 21.95 percent in 2007 to a high of 41.78 percent in 2012, are actually among the highest in the country.
In a 2005 study examining voter turnout rates for student government elections, University of Iowa political science professor Tom Rice and law student Kimberly Lewis found that the average turnout of the sampled colleges is 18.8 percent. They point out that while student rates pale in comparison to those in major public elections, the rates are very similar to those in municipal and statewide primary elections.
For example, University of Kansas political science professor Curtis Wood’s 2002 research shows turnout rates for urban mayoral elections are often between 30 to 35 percent. These figures drop even further in smaller towns, according to Rice and his colleague Hillary Schlueter in their 2004 study of local elections.
Two other ways to draw significant points from the UCSB A.S. elections voter turnout data set are to contextualize it with national events. These arrangements give us some interesting interpretations of the numbers.
1. The Financial Crisis of 2007-08
Considered by many to be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the 2007-08 recession was felt throughout the world and had many ramifications including lower university enrollment.
Graph B combines both the data from the previous chart and the total number of undergraduates enrolled at UCSB at the time.
According to the enrollment numbers, there seems to have been a freeze on undergraduate enrollment, with the difference between 2007 to 2008 being only 46 students. Voter turnout, however, spiked 6.56 percent.
2. Presidential Elections
UCSB is one of the most politically active campuses in the nation, registering the most voters via student-led voter drives, according to the United States Student Association. It’s possible that the presidential election could have an impact on campus elections as well.
Graph C compares UCSB A.S. elections voter turnout to that of youths in the presidential election. There is a correlation between student government elections and national elections: UCSB sees spikes in its A.S. election voter turnout on each year there is a presidential election.
During the 2008 presidential contest between then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, the numbers spiked 6.56 percent from 2007 to 2008. From 2008 to 2009, the voter turnout increased by 4.96 percent, and it continued to rise until peaking at 41 percent in 2012 — the highest voter turnout UCSB has seen in this period. This happened to be during the 2012 presidential election between Obama and former governor Mitt Romney.
The numbers gradually decrease by the time we get to the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016.
Then comes 2017, the year in which the election of Donald Trump has brought a surge of protests in the new millennium. Following the trend of past presidential elections in 2008, 20012 and 2016, voter turnout for the 2017 A.S. Election increased by 4 percent from the year prior.
A version of this story appeared on p.4 of the Thursday, May 11, 2017, print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Correction: A previous headline suggested the U.S. general election directly affects A.S. voter turnout. This has been corrected.