How one Facebook post made me an SGA senator (and why we need to fix it)

By Zac Bears

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Last Tuesday, I sat at my computer watching many of my friends who are involved in the Student Government Association posting about the SGA senate elections. A few of the Facebook posts noted there were only eight candidates for the 17 open seats in the commuter area. Having moved off campus, I was eligible to run for a seat, but I hadn’t submitted the 25 required signatures for nomination, so my name was not on the ballot.

My friend Emily O’Neil, a junior Collegian columnist and SGA senator, shared the link to vote on CampusPulse, asking any friends who lived off campus to write her name in on the ballot. I shared the link from her, making only a small addition, asking my off-campus friends to “Write in Emily O’Neil, Daniel DeLucia and Isaac Bears” for senator.

(Courtesy of Zac Bears)
(Courtesy of Zac Bears)

That one post, with its 15 likes, two shares and nine comments, was enough to boost Dan and me into the SGA senate. In fact, more voters voted for me than four other commuter senators. Dan, with nine votes, had the third fewest, and my 12 were the fifth fewest. One senator from the commuter area was elected with seven votes; another senator from Sylvan Residential Area won with only six votes. Only four voters elected two of the three senators from North Apartments.

By comparison, a candidate in Commonwealth Honors College had 146 votes and lost election to one of the four CHC seats by only one vote. In Southwest, at least nine candidates earned over 100 votes and didn’t gain a seat (the Elections Report doesn’t include a list of all candidates who received votes). In all, 16 losing candidates from on-campus residential areas received more votes than the commuter senator with the most votes (59) did.

The 17 open seats in the commuter area represented exactly one-third of the 51 open seats on this year’s senate ballot.

This year’s voter turnout of 15.24 percent, 3,352 of the now-arbitrary “22,000” number chosen by the Elections Commission, represents the broader problem of campus-wide political disengagement. The SGA and student governance deeply engages too few University of Massachusetts students, epitomized by the 15 percent turnout rate. And, from personal experience, candidates asking friends and roommates to vote for them inflate that already-low number because the friends often are not engaged in campus politics or knowledgeable about the candidates and their policies.

Campus-wide political reform already suffered a serious blow last spring, when the Elections Commission invalidated presidential candidate Ellie Miske, vice presidential candidate Gabrielle Cook and student trustee candidate Emily Devenney (the DMC ticket), all three of whom won commanding majorities of the students’ vote. This invalidation hinged on bylaw technicalities, none of which was serious enough to “throw” the election in any direction, particularly toward DMC.

Responsibility for the dismal state of undergraduate politics at UMass falls on the current and several recent SGA administrations, both the executive and legislative branches. It’s not that one senate speaker or elections commission made a mistake. Year after year, successive senates and presidents have allowed political stagnation to perpetuate.

I’ve heard a few smart election reform ideas in the past few weeks. In last Thursday’s Massachusetts Daily Collegian, O’Neil suggested reallocating SGA senate seats not by residential area, but by academic college. This would help to alleviate the immense disadvantage all on-campus students face compared to off-campus candidates. It would also encourage more political engagement from voters regardless of housing. Candidates could campaign for more physical support for arts classrooms or to find additional student time in biology labs. This could solve the distributional bias toward English and political science majors in recent senates.

This senate must also pass a general reform and modernization of the elections bylaws. Including the invalidation of the DMC ticket last spring, and the nearly constant 15 to 20 percent voter turnout, we have clear evidence of serious issues with the current electoral system. Modernizing the bylaws to smooth out confusions regarding campaign finance, new digital platforms and the bylaws relationship to the Student Code of Conduct are only a few of my several recommendations. Another would be democratizing the Elections Commission.

Considering the amount of money most students pay to attend UMass each year, the administration must entrust us with greater authority as to how the University allocates that money. A key function of any institution is accountability. With UMass President Robert Caret’s 50/50 plan in place for the indefinite future, students deserve accountability for the 50 percent that we fund.

The first cornerstone to more shared governance and accountability is ensuring the democratic process of undergraduate government. We need to boost election turnout to the (still disappointing) 50 or 60 percent seen in most American elections, and reforming senate apportionment and modernizing the elections bylaws are concrete steps that this senate can take immediately.

Zac Bears is the Opinion & Editorial Editor. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @zac_bears.