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Are Student Government Elections Pointless?

Cody R. McCain, Guest Writer

Engagement with Student Government elections has never been lower in its entire history, so is there any point to maintaining them? Photo//Cody McCain.

The Winter 2023 Student Government Elections concluded on Monday, April 3. This was the third SG election I was involved in, advising parties on the rules and procedures of the election, encouraging students to vote, and filling out election violation forms. I take these elections as seriously as a real election.

The candidates do as well.

The students running in the election, especially those eyeing the presidency and vice presidency of Student Government, spend countless hours alongside their courses, internships, and other student leadership positions creating campaign flyers, managing Instagram accounts, and messaging every contact they have to spread the word as far as they can. For the ‘usual suspects,’ the ones involved in almost every facet of student life, the presidency and vice presidency of Student Government is one of the crown jewels.

I suppose I am one of those usual suspects, especially in the realm of student politics. I have been called the ‘shadow president,’ much to my dismay, and I have had my Machiavellian approach to bureaucracy and coordination problems referred to as ‘wetwork’ (also much to my dismay). I have been told by students and administrators alike that my work in Student Government has been so influential that I will still be its top consultant 20 years from now.

I say this not to come off as ‘holier than thou.’ I say this because when I make an interpretation of Student Government’s governing document or its policies, it holds weight. My hope is the usual suspects read this as an open letter on the most problematic component of Student Government: its elections.

In total, only 255 students voted. In the 2021-2022 academic year, there were 9,521 students, That’s less than 2.7 percent of the student population at the time.

Part of why I am more or less on-call 24 hours a day for interpreting Student Government’s governing document (which I will call “The Statutes” from now on) is because I wrote it. Back during the COVID-19 pandemic, I proposed to the incoming President a rewrite of our governing documents. We used to have three governing documents, totaling 93 pages. No one had read them in years. The President agreed, and within a year (I will spare details) it was approved by the student body.

There were two things that troubled me when it was approved about a year ago today. Firstly, I hated (and still hate) the way I wrote the part of The Statutes that concerns elections (I will call this “Title 5” from now on). It is the longest of the five titles in The Statutes, and is the least changed from the old documents we used to have. Part of this was because the Dean of Students was extremely busy by the time I got around to rewriting it, so I did not change much in order to receive the blessing for The Statutes to go to the Senate (blessing? We will return to that). It still retains a lot of the problems the old governing documents had: ambiguity, general disorganization, and even outright contradicting itself.

The second issue was how it was approved. When the Senate voted on it, they ultimately decided to have The Statutes put on the Winter 2022 ballot for the student body to vote in. Thankfully for me, who had put in well over 100 hours in at least the first four titles of the thing, it was approved by the student body. Or, at least those who voted.

See, any enrolled student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn can vote in the SG election. However, if they do choose to vote, they are required to vote on any amendment to The Statutes present, or in this case the previous governing documents. In total, only 255 students voted in the Winter 2022 Election. In the 2021-2022 academic year, there were 9,521 students. That’s less than 2.7 percent of the student population at the time.

The year before was worse. While no amendment was up for vote by the student body for the 2020-2021 academic year, the most votes a student received was 199, or 2.01 percent of the student population at the time if you are generous with the rounding.

This limits who votes for who by (1) if they are in a candidate’s network, and (2) if a candidate has their own money to spend on their campaign.

So, was The Statutes really approved by “the student body?” Can I or the usual suspects, who know who they are, reasonably say that? I do not think we can. It begs the question: if less than three percent of the student population can determine the next year for one of the most influential student organizations on our campus, is it really democratic?

Who votes in these elections, anyway? If you recall from above, the usual way parties reach out to the student body is through Instagram account posts, campus flyers, and messaging every WhatsApp contact, group chat, and student organization they can. A lot of this outreach costs money, and because the old governing documents and current Statutes forbid the spending of student organization dollars, most candidates spend money out of their own pocket if they can afford to.

This limits who votes for who by (1) if they are in a candidate’s network, and (2) if a candidate has their own money to spend on their campaign. The Statutes state that students should exercise fiscal responsibility when campaigning, but some are so desperate for the prize of the presidency that they do not care.

In election studies within political science, it has been determined that most people vote based on party affiliation. Even self-described independents, depending on if they lean left or right, are found to have a party preference. But because The Statutes and the previous governing documents forbid parties outside of the election cycle, basically March and April of an academic year, students cannot form a party affiliation.

This was conceived to keep the Senate moving and not get swamped in petty ideological disputes, but it consequently makes elections based on a candidate’s popularity on the campus and how much disposable income they have.

Contrary to popular belief, Student Government cannot do whatever it wants. It is highly constricted by university administration in what it can and cannot do.

To give some context: 61.3 percent of registered voters voted in the United States 2020 Presidential Election, almost thirty times as many people voting than in the last two SG elections if one looks at the proportions. Due to the structure of the SG election, that I admit, I have aided and abetted, the SG election is a popularity contest that can drastically influence for the next year the most influential student organization on our campus.

At least, that is what most students would believe at an initial look at the situation. We now return to the role of administrators in Student Government. Once a student becomes president, there are two caveats. One of which leads to the alarming nature of the other.

The first component is that The Statutes does not allow for the President, Vice President, or any member of Student Government to be impeached. This was an intentional move towards collaborating with Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (OSC-CR) due to bad faith actors in the past using impeachment to delay legislation and harass minorities, usually queer and overweight people (don’t ask; Student Government pre-Statutes was a toxic hell-hole).

The second caveat is more important. Contrary to popular belief, Student Government cannot do whatever it wants. It is highly constricted by university administrators in what it can and cannot do. A lot of this is hidden, but it very much exists. Any attempts for Student Government to do anything outside of the blessing of administrators results in administrators using a 'grim trigger' strategy, essentially blue-balling the sitting President until they resign or are voted out in the next election.

Given both caveats, University administrators control the Student Government presidency, the president cannot be removed by the elected Senate, elected by students, and all of SG’s membership is voted in by less than three percent of the student body at any given time, not to mention that most Senators come into the Senate through a Fellowship, which involves no direct student input.

A President’s connections lament when the election comes: they privately admit to past Presidents that they wish they could run a second term. They, too, dislike the election.

I do not fault them. A good President could be years away, and Student Government can provide a campus department or staff resources and student insight in a way no other student organization can. From a pragmatic point of view, the opinion I am allowed to pontificate as ‘shadow president,’ the dislike makes sense.

. . .

I will attempt to allow myself to have an opinion on Student Government. My position in Student Government for the last three years was not one of “what do you think?” but “here’s what I (i.e., not me) want to do; how do we achieve this as quickly as possible?” So, here it goes.

As the author of The Statutes, I have always hated the election. Most students do not give a shit, and all it does is end up turning into a pissing contest between the presidential candidates and their most fervent supporters. It divides the current Student Government membership into camps, only to unify those camps by the end of the summer when everyone forgives and forgets. What is actually gained? From someone who has been involved in three elections now, honestly, I can say nothing is gained.

Before, I used to defend it from a pragmatic point of view: that it allowed University of Michigan-Dearborn administrators to uphold the illusion of democracy. But given the above, it is clear it is not present.

Would I say that SG elections are pointless?

If the goal is to simulate democracy, yes. The fact that an SG election’s legitimacy in the eyes of the student body has yet to be questioned is incredible.

What I propose is something far simpler. I want something far simpler. These sweeping reforms are not healthy for the stability of student organizations.

If the goal is to ensure that the student body is involved in decisions the University of Michigan-Dearborn takes, also yes. Administrators and staff dislike the election, students clearly are not engaged with the election, and most of the members in Student Government are indirect appointments brought in as friends or colleagues of current members.

Is there any real solution?

Part of the issue is the Student Government at the University of Michigan-Dearborn does not control the budgets of other student organizations. At other Student Governments in Michigan, some control the budgets of all student organizations, student activities and events, even the student activity fee itself. I do not think this is the solution.

The decentralized nature of campus life on our campus lets student organizations do as they wish, without others prosecuting them for partisan gain. Student activities are handled at the student organization level, with bigger events involving Student Activities Board, who are not affiliated with Student Government. Funding requests are handled by a non-partisan funding board run under the close watch of the Office of Student Life: the Student Organization Allocation Council, or SOAC.

SOAC was recently decoupled from Student Government to prevent the board from potential mismanagement from Student Government, which had occurred in the past, notably during COVID-19. For the usual suspects, SOAC from Winter 2019 to Fall 2020 was one of the primary factors, besides the pandemic itself. Student life died and had to be completely reconstructed. The leadership was given to one of the top supporters of the sitting President at the time.

Decentralization is a part of the solution. So where does that leave Student Government and its elections? The usual suspects know me for authoring and passing sweeping reforms that fundamentally change a student organization. What I propose is something far simpler. I want something far simpler. These sweeping reforms are not healthy for the stability of student organizations.

What needs to happen is the following:

1. The election needs to be extended. Ideally, it would start in January and end in April. This allows people to establish relationships with candidates and parties.

2. In addition, more frequent elections for Senators is warranted. This keeps the Senate full and will encourage students to vote with more opportunities to participate.

3. The Office of Student Life should fully fund campaigns, leveling the playing field. A special funding application form could be opened under SOAC, and have SOAC manage two funds: one for student organizations and one for campaigns. This would simply be a partition of the Office of Student Life’s budget that the Office of Student Life would use to purchase campaign flyers, buttons, and other campaign materials.

4. There needs to be multiple debates, with opportunities for rebuttal, in multiple locations around campus. Very few students attend under the one debate model, and without rebuttals, students cannot discern the possible differences between platforms.

Students need to understand that every student can participate in Student Government. Last year, students in CECS thought Student Government was only for CASL students, when in reality, as of this year’s elections, the Senate is proportional based on the student populations in each college. Any student can join Student Government.

Decentralization is a part of the solution, and so are simpler, less grandiose actions. Student Government elections are pointless, but they do not have to be. Simple solutions are already being pursued: the recent Student Government election saw the proportional representation amendment pass with overwhelming approval. This amendment will tie the number of seats in the Senate to college populations to be filled by members of those colleges.

Gone are the days of the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters dominating the Senate. This amendment was made within the system, and is a solution in-line with our decentralized student life, clean from ideological disputes through freedom of association.

Solutions within the system will make elections meaningful to the student body once again. Back in the 1970s, Student Government had 25 percent of students voting in elections. That would be far better to have that level of participation today.

Cody R. McCain (They/Them) is a senior undergraduate student majoring in history and philosophy, and minoring in political science and applied statistics. A 2022 Dearborn Difference Maker, they are the Chair of Student Organization Allocation Council (SOAC), the current Parliamentarian of Student Government, and formerly held the Executive Secretary, Recording Secretary, and Financial Secretary positions in Student Government. They have interned at all levels of the United States government. In 2022, they were selected as a Finalist for the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program.

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