Two years ago, as a freshman, Sarah Darzacq was a delegate at the Berkeley High School (BHS) election convention. This year, she attended the election convention again, instead as a candidate for Associated Student Body (ASB) vice president, and found a starkly different environment.
“At the election convention [this year], so few student delegates were there to watch, and that’s a big difference from pre-COVID-19,” Darzacq said. “I was a delegate freshman year and it was packed. … Everybody was super excited. There were tons of students. The auditorium was filled. And this year, there were really not a lot of people. It was mostly just the candidates.”
Darzacq suggested that this change may be due to students being constantly “bombarded” with information about events, unable to process it all, or because of decreased access to information altogether.
“With such a big school, a drawback is that a lot of information can fall through the cracks,” Darzacq said. “Especially with the PA system not working, and not everybody watching the morning announcements, it’s hard to get a steady information flow.”
John Villavicencio, director of student activities, attributed the decrease in student participation in recent years to the less “raucous” and exciting atmosphere of the election conventions. He described how in past years, the election convention has incorporated sensational elements such as a balloon drop and a dance break, attracting over 200 students in some instances.
Contrary to the lack of student interest seen in the convention, more students seem to be running for office. Last year, several positions were uncontested, including sophomore and senior class president, as well as vice president. This year, the position of senior class president alone has five candidates, and four students are running for senior class vice president.
Darzacq attributed the lack of candidates last year to the pandemic, which occupied students’ attention.
“Nobody wants to run for school leadership in the middle of the pandemic,” Darzacq said. “This year, everybody really wants BHS to be a fun and enjoyable place to be at, and I think people want to be part of that change.”
Anna Khan-Akselrod, BHS’ commissioner of elections, suggested that students’ physical presence on campus has strengthened their sense of connection to “civic duty to the school” and inspired many of them to run for office. “[Now] that we’re on campus, the issues that we see become very real, but we also see more real solutions to fix them,” Khan-Akselrod said.
“[The candidates] spotted these issues that still existed at BHS through online school, and even before, but being back on campus, they can see how prevalent it is and how they can work to fix it in some way.”
The pandemic has also been observed to have influenced candidates’ campaigns, with students emphasizing mental health issues, which were worsened by the pandemic. She also noticed a theme among candidates of substantive policies, with efforts to combat rape culture and implement consent education.
“BHS students take this really seriously,” Villavicencio said. “It’s not like the TV and movie elections where people are like, ‘You want burgers everyday? I’ll give you burgers for lunch!’ We’re not talking silly, ridiculous offers to the student body. They really want to make a difference in terms of what happens to policies [and] curriculum. They want to make serious change, and if [their policy] is something that a student is interested in, they should know that and vote.”
Villavicencio described how low student turnout would be “heartbreaking;” a sign that either students don’t have access to enough information or technology, or that they don’t think their vote matters.
“I’m really, really hoping that the election this year is more accessible, and that more students vote, because in previous elections, voter turnout [was not demonstrative of the entire school],” Khan-Akselrod said. “I’m really hoping that now that we’re back on campus, there’s a way to excite voters and get them to vote for the candidates that best show their interest.”
Students will be able to cast their ballot from March 28 to March 31 through a Google form. Important student resources include the election handbook, videos from the election convention, and the candidates’ individual Instagram platforms, according to Khan-Akselrod, which students can use to make informed decisions as they actively participate in student government.