May 6, 2014

Electoral dysfunction

Student government fails to satisfy student concerns.

Last year, Student Government elections were a farce. Two major slates for the Executive Board of the Student Government and one other candidate were accused of violating campaign by-laws and were subsequently docked votes. The fallout from the elections, the complaints with names redacted, and otherwise lack of character of many of the candidates were as sad as they were illuminating. This massive impropriety in an election that is mostly meant to elect administrators who are to liaise between the student body and campus is despicable. The slate that ended up winning had no major election issues, but the entire process left a bad taste in many students’ mouths, and was an embarrassment for the student body.

Following that debacle, you would think that every party involved would be working diligently to ensure that there were no hiccups this year. The first election this year was held to elect first-year representatives. There were some hiccups, some people had issues with voting, but in the end it was apparently resolved.

Fast-forward to the end of this academic year, when the Student Government elections for the entire student body were set to occur. It’s 9 a.m., and the polls open. As students attempt to vote, they are told by the website (when it loads) that they are ineligible. At first, the word was spread that the bug had just hit seniors particularly hard but, upon emailing the chairman of the Elections and Rules Committee, it became apparent that there had been a change in the rules. The committee had decided to disallow fourth-years the right to vote in elections this year, breaking with years of tradition. Additionally, they did so without a formal meeting (as formal meetings are obligated to be posted with reasonable warning on the E&R website).

I met with the chairman of the Elections and Rules Commission, who quickly agreed that they had violated the University Constitution and must fix the problem at hand. An ORCSA representative sent out an email apologizing for technical difficulties and completely avoided the fact that the so-called technical difficulties were actually a concerted effort to deny voting for fourth-years. The email, though, contained no apology for the decision to completely exclude fourth-years from the electoral process. While it is nice that you can go to the Student Government website, click on committees, and find a new affirmation in the Elections and Rules section that yes, fourth-years are part of the Student Association, this is not enough. The vast majority of fourth-years probably are unaware that an unaccountable group of unelected officials attempted to disenfranchise their entire class. This second-year-in-a-row election disaster dovetails with the true issue at hand: Student Government as an institution does not adequately represent or administer the needs of the students.

Many, if not all, of the problems being discussed by the College Council are problems of Student Government itself. On April 9, they argued against elections to fill vacant seats, because they know better and think that elections are susceptible to people “mobilizing existing social networks.” To many, that sounds like the point of an election. It is also notable that this change was made by the Council without convening the Elections and Rules Committee. While I understand that the Elections and Rules Committee is appointed by College Council and therefore would likely agree with everything they would put forward anyway, this is distasteful. Additionally, on April 16, they discussed throwing themselves a mocktail party.

On April 17, members of Student Government wanted to vote to give the five cabinet members a $1,000 stipend per quarter (or more) because the five to 15 hours a week that they work may preclude them from working a part-time job. Many major clubs and organizations around campus have members that work on RSO activities five, 10, 15 or 20 hours a week. While I have no doubt some people around campus sympathize with the hard-working Student Government, there are more members of the campus community outside of SG with whom we all can empathize. There is never enough money allocated to clubs. Many organizations do not get the full amount of money they request, and to divert any of that to provide a stipend to Student Government is an affront to hard working students across campus.

If Student Government leadership is admitting that they must be paid, and paid more highly than some student jobs on campus, in order to be able to deliberate on this sort of weighty issue among others of its type, I believe that those student leaders should step down. There are definitely students on this campus that will fulfill the requirements of Student Government without cost, similar to how every other club on campus is able to find dedicated leadership without payment. If no one is willing to run Student Government without a large stipend, then that is yet another signal for reform. When only 1,900 students out of a voting population of over 14,000 choose to participate in these campus-wide elections, that sends a clear message that more than 85% of individuals are unhappy with the system or do not care. As more layers of this rotten onion are peeled back, it seems more and more apparent that there needs to be large-scale structural change to the way Student Government operates.

A successful election should require not only a majority of students voting yes, but also a majority of students voting. But in this last election, less than 15 percent of students voted. This should be taken as a “no” vote on the existence of Student Government. If Student Government is so invisible and incommunicative on our campus, it needs to be temporarily eliminated. If the current Student Government is eliminated, real pressure will be put on administrators to work with the student body to enact a student government that can effectively act, or suffer embarrassment in front of its peers. What self-respecting top-tier university is happy without a student government? If a majority of students cannot be bothered to vote in favor of having a student government, then perhaps it makes more sense to hire a few more people to work at ORCSA and handle the administrative aspects of student life that are currently being mishandled by our so-called representatives—until the pressure builds and we can get a student government worthy of our campus.

Eric Wessan is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.