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Last month’s Harvard Undergraduate Association officer election was marked by lower turnout and more uncontested races than elections in previous years, drawing reflection from students about the newly formed body.
Some students speculated that a lack of motivation or belief in the body’s impact on the student body may have led to low turnout and a lack of candidates. John S. Cooke ’25 and Shikoh Misu Hirabayashi ’24 were elected as the second HUA co-presidents on Feb. 21, alongside nine other officers.
Roughly 1,950 undergraduates cast ballots in the election, which represented approximately 26 percent of the student body. While this marked a small improvement from last year’s 1,849 ballots, previous elections under the recently dissolved Undergraduate Council saw 2,000 to 4,000 ballots cast every year except 2020, which had 1,518 voters.
“I feel like it’s a civic duty to vote in any opportunity that you can,” said Thomas A. Tait ’26, who voted in the election. “Even if it’s student government, where I think the candidate that gets elected doesn’t have too much of an impact on the actual policy, I felt that it was more of a moral obligation.”
Hugo R. Núñez Jr. ’26, who also voted in the races, attributed the turnout numbers to a lack of student motivation.
“Students don’t really see incentive to vote,” Núñez said. “You have to take time out of your day to research the candidates and look through your email.”
Núñez suggested incentivizing voter turnout by raffling off free food.
“The HUA has an impact on our lives, but not many students think about or look too deeply into it,” he said.
In a written statement, outgoing HUA Co-Presidents Travis Allen Johnson ’24 and LyLena D. Estabine ’24 highlighted the slight increase in ballots cast this year compared to last.
“We were pleased to see an increase in voter turnout, and we hope that more and more students will continue to vote in these elections,” the co-presidents wrote.
Of this year’s nine officer races, just two — for the co-presidency and academic officer — were contested. In the 2022 HUA election, multiple candidates competed in all races except for one.
Nuriel R. Vera-DeGraff ’26 said he believes the student body’s perception of the HUA led to a lack of competition in the election.
“I think the problem is that the institution overall doesn’t really have much credibility, and that’s why people aren’t gonna want to be a candidate to run if you don’t even care about the organization,” Vera-DeGraff said.
Johnson and Estabine wrote that the election is about “candidate quality over quantity.”
“All of the candidates who ran presented comprehensive policies and campaign ideas and we look forward to watching them execute and enact them,” they wrote.
Ahmad H. Kanafani ’26 said he believes students may not run for officer positions because they do not think the roles carry power.
“I think the problem is that people think that if they take up the role, they will be unimportant, and they will not have a say in anything,” Kanafani said.
Kanafani said he believes if the power of these roles were expanded, there would be more students campaigning for them.
Tait expressed hope for more candidates in future elections, adding that he believes that students will see this year’s lack of contested officer positions as a reason to “take a shot at running.”
The election also featured ranked-choice voting, a system that allows voters to express candidate preferences beyond their top pick by ranking all contenders.
Vera-DeGraff said while he is a proponent of the system, it is not without its drawbacks.
“People might rank randomly or give it up to chance, which seems unfair to the actual democratic process,” Vera-DeGraff said. “Definitely I’m in favor of ranked-choice voting. I do think, though, information has to come along with it to make sure it’s more effective.”
HUA co-presidential ticket Laila A. Nasher ’25 and Ethan C. Kelly ’25 received the highest number of first-choice votes in this year’s elections, but they did not ultimately win because of the ranked-choice system.
“One of the best features of ranked-choice voting is its ability to elect candidates who can garner broad support from a variety of students,” Johnson and Estabine wrote. “Ranked-choice voting helps reduce the chances of extremely polarized candidates winning office.”
“As such, we support this system,” they added.
Correction: March 8, 2023
A previous version of this article misattributed statements to only HUA Co-President Travis Allen Johnson ’24. In fact, these were joint statements from Johnson and HUA Co-President LyLena D. Estabine ’24.
—Staff writer Jonah C. Karafiol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonahkarafiol.
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