On a campus of more than 27,000 students, only 4,887 people voted in the 2013 student government election.
Data collected by the Dean of Students Office and The Daily Beacon archives show that since 1984, the number of students voting in Student Government Association elections has never exceeded 7,200.
"Frankly, SGA has a negative reputation among many students," said Daniel Lawhon, a junior in electrical engineering. "Some feel that the institution is powerless, and so they fail to see the value in voting or participating."
Bert Sams, former associate vice chancellor for Administration and Student Affairs from 1971-1999, worked closely with the election commission each year.
Although Sams did not attribute voter turnout directly to the candidates' personalities, he remembered many unique presidential hopefuls.
The highest vote count of Sams' tenure came during the 1984 election season, when Al Williamson and Mark Howard – running jointly as 'Big Al and his Pal' – won the ballot.
Sams attributed Williamson's success to the novelty of this campaign.
"Big Al was kind of a big guy with a nonsensical sort of campaign and a silly platform," Sams said. "But he caught peoples' attention."
Another strong year for voter turnout was 1989, when John Claybrooks, the first African-American to run in 20 years, was on the ballot. The election drew 4,151 voters.
Beyond charisma, Sams highlighted the importance of candidates' affiliation with student organizations. Lindi Smedberg, director of Sorority and Fraternity Life, has witnessed many Greek Council or chapter meetings intended to spotlight SGA candidates and promote voting.
"Hearing a message like that from a Greek brother or sister could make them inclined to cast a vote to be sure their voice is heard," Smedberg wrote in an email.
In Sams' experience, votes pour in when students fear their rights are being violated.
"If things are going along pretty nicely, no one gets excited about anything," Sams said. "If there's a big deal about increasing an activities fee or cutting football tickets, whatever it may be that a lot of students feel like it's going to impact them, then there's going to be a big impact on turnout."
Similar to local, state and national elections, candidate allure and hot-button issues drive students to the polls – not civic duty.
Illustrating this theory, 172,507 votes were cast in Knox County for the 2012 presidential election while 60,456 voters cast a ballot for the 2010 Knox County mayoral election, arguably a less-politically charged event.
"It's a pretty rampant issue in this country," Sams said. "We were set up to be for the people, by the people, and folks don't believe that. They don't feel like they have a stake in what's going on."
Sams said students often feel SGA has no direct impact on their lives, nor any real influence over administrative decisions.
However, Jeff Maples, senior associate vice chancellor for the Division of Finance and Administration Staff, disagreed.
"SGA is important," Maples said. "I can tell you right now that we listen to what the SGA leadership says. We meet with them quite often, and so it's important to have the right leadership who can convey what the students are interested in."
Due to debate in the Tennessee legislature over the allocation of student fees, Lawhon said he thinks this election season will draw many students in to vote.
"We have seen what can be accomplished when students take ownership," Lawhorn said, "(Just) look at the defeat of the mandatory meal plan and the thousands of students presently rallying against student fee legislation."
Following 2013's voter participation of an estimated 18 percent of the student body, the election commission has planned several events to boost student involvement in the election this year.
Election Commissioner Ryan Ray named the Campaign Kickoff Cookout in Presidential Courtyard on March 30 and a debate hosted by The Volunteer Channel on April 1 as possibilities for student participation prior to the April 3-4 election.
"These elected officials get an incredible amount of face time with those behind making the most important decisions on our campus," Ray said in an email. "If students turn down this unique opportunity to choose how their voice will be represented in the future, they miss out on the ability to shape large, fundamental developments that our university will face in the coming years."