Richard Montgomery High School junior Hana O’Looney won the 2021–22 MCPS Student Member of the Board of Education election on Friday. 37.5% of MCPS middle and high school students voted for their choice of SMOB, a dramatic increase from the 12.28% of eligible students who voted in last year’s election.
O’Looney, who won 78.3% of the vote, will begin her term on July 1. She plans to focus on uplifting and diversifying the voices of MCPS students during her time in office.
In 2020, MCPS held its first all-virtual SMOB election due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a 72.8% drop in voter turnout took place. The decline occurred primarily because the MCR-SGA Special Elections Committee — the group that coordinates SMOB elections — struggled to inform students of the election without the resources of in-person school, said SEC Administrator Divya Vakkalanka.
“With the online election last year, there were a lot of challenges with making sure that every student was aware about voting,” Vakkalanka said.
In response to the decreased voter turnout, the SEC made several changes to this year’s election process. The group designated April 22 and April 23 as voting days instead of the one-day timeframe of previous years in order to give students more opportunities to vote. Additionally, the SEC mandated that English and ESOL teachers dedicate a portion of their class time for voting. During the SMOB election last year, students’ classes consisted simply of optional virtual check-ins, meaning there wasn’t an allotted voting time to vote during school hours.
The SEC also hosted its first countywide Zoom Q&A webinar with the two SMOB finalists to help students learn about their platforms.
“I’m glad that even with this unconventional year, we were able to reach so many students with the importance of the SMOB election and participation in this process,” Vakkalanka said.
For some students who neglected to vote in 2020, the SEC’s efforts — particularly in reinstating an in-school voting period — made all the difference in increasing their political participation this election cycle.
“Last year, I didn’t even know that we were supposed to vote,” freshman Jinara Weerakoon said. “This year, my English teacher gave us time during class, so that made it easier to cast my vote.”
Prior to the election, O’Looney mobilized voters by reaching out to students through social media, email and word of mouth, she said. O’Looney also participated in Zoom events at every middle and high school in the county, during which she spoke with students about her platform.
Despite these efforts and the eventual rise in voter turnout, O’Looney still feels that spreading awareness about the election entirely online was hard, she said.
“It’s been very difficult to reach average students who don’t really care about the SMOB elections,” O’Looney said. “But I was able to reach a lot more people at once by hosting Zooms.”
O’Looney said that learning of the increased voter turnout made her all the more excited to serve the school district as its SMOB.
“I am excited for this year and the change we are going to bring to MCPS,” O’Looney said.