Student government needs to reflect University's diverse populationBy Andrew Parks | 02/11/2015 12:39am
The basic goal of a democracy is to carry out the will of the people. Through voting, we elect representatives who then meet to write and pass legislation that reflects our collective will.
In order for a democracy to carry out this function, it must be representative of the people it serves. A democracy’s actions cannot truly reflect the will of its constituents unless those constituents are accurately and holistically represented by elected officials.
In that respect, the Student Government Association at the University of Alabama is inherently undemocratic.
Consider the facts. Of our 98 SGA presidents to date, exactly five of them have been female. The last of those female SGA presidents was elected more than a decade ago. On a campus where women now make up 55 percent of the student body, only five women have been elected to executive office in the 21 different executive races which have taken place in the last three election cycles. If you’re a female student at The University of Alabama, you have less than a 25 percent chance of being elected to executive office based on recent history. You have virtually no chance of becoming SGA president.
As bad as the outlook is for women, it’s even worse for racial minorities. Only one of our 98 SGA presidents has been black, Cleo Thomas, who was elected almost four decades ago. Only one other black candidate has been elected to executive office at all, that being Denzel Evans-Bell in 2011. Despite being 12 percent of our student body, black students have less than a 5 percent chance of securing executive office in our SGA based on recent history.
Our SGA lacks other characteristics of a healthy democracy as well. For starters, the average voter turnout rate in the last six election cycles is a disappointing 33.1 percent – roughly half the national turnout in the last two presidential elections. Moreover, voter turnout shows a consistently downward trend in that period of time, with a net 4,193 fewer students casting votes in 2014 than did in 2009. Our rates of electoral competition are equally disappointing. Of the 42 executive races in the last six election cycles, only 18, or 42.9 percent, were contested.
But what should concern you most isn’t the lack of diversity, voter participation or electoral competition. It’s the corruption. In last year’s election cycle alone, two major scandals occurred. The first had to do with flyers endorsing non-Machine SGA candidates. The second involved Vice President for Student Affairs Steven Keller, in which he took donations of flyers endorsing Machine candidates and then didn’t list those flyers on campaign finance forms as required. A pair of major scandals in a single election cycle indicates that in addition to being inherently undemocratic, our SGA finds itself in an unethical state of affairs.
This is The University of Alabama. We admit the highest number of National Merit students of any public university in the country. We rank among the nation’s top 50 public universities. It is irresponsible, and frankly unconscionable, for a university which shapes some of our nation’s best and brightest to allow its student government – which provides those students with some of their first experiences with the democratic process and shapes their involvement in it for the rest of their lives – to continue in this direction.
To that end, the United Alabama Project put forth an election reform proposal to clean up SGA elections two weeks ago. This organization, of which I am a member, will also hold a meeting for potential SGA Senate candidates and campaign staffers this Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Lloyd 227. I strongly encourage anyone interested in taking our SGA in a new direction – the right direction – to find our Facebook page, where more information about our initiatives will be available, and get involved in making the changes we need to move forward.
Andrew Parks is a senior majoring in political science. His column runs biweekly.