Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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

By Zac Bears

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(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.


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

  1. Sam the Minuteman on September 22nd, 2014 11:16 am

    “all three of whom won commanding majorities of the students’ vote”

    Not accurate, 1304 out of 3352 is not a majority, let alone a commanding one- it’s 39%.

  2. Zac Bears on September 22nd, 2014 2:22 pm

    In a 5 way race, a 150 vote plurality for P/VP and 200+ votes for Trustee is commanding. Keep justifying a bad call. The Elections Commission decided the single Fall 2014 SGA senate complaint, which was the same complaint levied against DMC, in favor of maintaining the voters’ will. That senate candidate was a man. I wonder why?

  3. Sam The Minuteman on September 22nd, 2014 3:18 pm

    Well, I’m glad you chose to be a part of the process (of senate) to change things for the ‘better’ and actually work hands on, from the front line, not hiding behind a computer.
    But wait, you declined from being a part of senate. Hmm, I wonder why?

  4. Zac Bears on September 22nd, 2014 3:28 pm

    I’ve gotten a lot more done from “behind a computer” than the SGA senate has in the past five years. So yes, I am a part of the process: I keep the SGA accountable from the media. And you’ll see me at every SGA Election Reform meeting to which I can make it. I wonder why that Facebook group and meeting time got set up today. Oh right, because bringing attention to the issue is something no SGA member in the past five years has wanted to do.

  5. Zac Bears on September 22nd, 2014 3:31 pm

    I also hope you appreciate the irony of me being the one “hiding” when you chose not to use a valid student e-mail. I wonder who it could be…

  6. Jennifer on September 23rd, 2014 3:13 am

    In response to the Facebook group and meeting time being set up today, would you rather have had your representatives ignore this article and not responded to your concerns? Also, if it were a year or two ago, seriously consider what your and other students responses would be to a member of SGA attempting to bring attention to election reform.

  7. Zac Bears on September 23rd, 2014 9:31 am

    No, I would have liked to wanted to be involved in SGA when I got here 3 years ago because the elections law created an environment where people (1) care about SGA and (2) want to use SGA as a force for change. I’m glad someone listened to me and the fact that we need election reform. No one has been talking about it since the DMC invalidation except for DMC supporters. I’m very pleased that Sionan has picked up the torch and will continue to move election reform forward. I’m glad I could start the conversation and that there are finally people on the other end who are willing to listen.

  8. Rich on September 23rd, 2014 10:46 am

    “In a 5 way race, a 150 vote plurality for P/VP and 200+ votes for Trustee is commanding. Keep justifying a bad call.”

    You will not elicit any change with responses like that. Regardless of how you interpreted Sam’s comment, he was simply stating a fact (39% is not majority, although I do agree with you that it is plenty significant).

    My point here is that your hostility and degrading tone serve no purpose and do not help your cause. You are not the first person in this world to try confronting an ugly situation, please do not act out of such frustration. Practice patience, for your own sake.

  9. Zac Bears on September 23rd, 2014 11:55 am

    When ‘Sam’ comes out with her true identity, I’ll treat her as though she is not a robo-commenter. Same goes for you, ‘Rich.’

  10. Kris on September 23rd, 2014 1:15 pm

    Maybe voter turnout is low because no one cares with good reason. Maybe there are people like myself who are more interested in making money in their spare time than complaining about how we need to increase the transracial presence in our faculty, you know, people who end up saving enough money during school to pay off their debt as soon as they graduate. Maybe there are people like myself who liked to drink on days ending in ‘y’ instead of demanding the unnecesary RA staff get even more unnecessary compensation. Maybe there are people like myself who are more interested in getting a good GPA in a major that teaches problem solving skills and improves chances of landing a job, than puffing up our resume with a college newpaper editor or student government position. Maybe people don’t want to vote for a hyperpartisan egomaniacal blowhard who can’t relate to what the majority of the student body cares about. Here’s the change I want: eliminate the diversity and other BS GenEd requirements, make it so that I have the option to graduate in 3 years instead of 4, and mandate basic courses in Finance/Econ, and MS Excel. That’s all you need for education. In doing so, you cut down the number of professors, and weed out what majors aren’t actually worth having at the school. Eliminate all the diversity esque admin positions, and eliminate the overhead that comes with all these ridiculous task forces they come up with so that Amilcar Shabazz has something to do. You’ll either end up with fewer students getting into debt because they opt not to major in anthropology, or more students getting career worthy educations, and graduating into less debt because you’ve just pared down the budget. So, being someone who worked up to 3 jobs in a semester, paid their way, graduated with distinction, had fun drinking, and now pays more in taxes than ever before because I have a good job, why should I have voted for someone like you, who thinks you are owed more?

  11. Zac Bears on September 23rd, 2014 2:58 pm

    Is that what the ‘majority’ of the University wants? Because I’ve not heard one person under the age of 50 suggest degrees in Microsoft Excel. And yes, I do care more about diversity than making money. Some people are just built that way.

  12. Kris on September 23rd, 2014 3:45 pm

    No, the majority does not want a degree in Excel. However, knowledge of excel, which provides basic accounting and programming skills, is much more useful than my favorite UMass course “Embracing Diversity.” Give the majority the option to get their degree done more quickly and for less money, while allowing them to focus strictly on their interests, and they will take it. You aren’t “built that way,” kid. You are practicing for votes and feeding your ego. It’s awful sad to see one of the major editors of this paper getting so touchy in the comments section. That used to be frowned upon.

  13. Zac Bears on September 23rd, 2014 9:01 pm

    I’m speaking as a columnist and as the person to whom you are responding. I am built that way, Kris. It doesn’t come from a college course or some cult leader that I follow. Representation matters and diversity of perspective is important, if not essential, to any good collective conversation, debate, discussion or decision. Now, I agree that providing more flexibility with a three year degree is an option worth pursuing. It is possible now. I could have graduated in three years with one major because I came in with a lot of credits from high school. UMass accepts almost every AP credit and transfer credits from many institutions. I know people who have graduated from UMass in two years with a B.A. straight out of high school because of transferred credit. I don’t practice for votes. I’m not running for anything. And I think it’s pretty clear that my perspective is not a majority opinion among the people who vote in this country.

    In any case, I have two reasons for responding so resolutely on the comment thread on this column: (1) This is about a campus issue. And if those who care about campus issues refuse to make their opinions public, they are perpetuating the student political disengagement at UMass. If non-UMass commenters bring disinformation and disengaging perspectives into the conversation, it diminishes the cause of bringing student power back to campus governance that I and many students across campus are fighting for. I want a student who shares your perspective to be able to adequately voice it and fight with the administration for more degree flexibility and accelerated programs. (2) Anonymous commenters get away with murder. I know that you put your identity out there, but the falsehoods perpetuated by people willing to hide in the shadows is astonishing. I brought too much of that tone and attitude into my first response to you, and I’m sorry about that.

  14. Rich on September 23rd, 2014 4:43 pm

    My post was not about me or Sam, it was about you. Our anonymity does not disprove any point that we make. Your hostile responses simply discredit a lot of what you have to say, and makes you less approachable.

    I’m not revealing my identity because I don’t feel comfortable doing so. My point is not made stronger or weaker because of it, jerk.

  15. Sam the MinuteWoman on September 24th, 2014 10:28 am

    The fact you are checking the emails in order to see who is commenting is disappointing.

    “The Elections Commission decided the single Fall 2014 SGA senate complaint, which was the same complaint levied against DMC, in favor of maintaining the voters’ will. That senate candidate was a man. I wonder why?”

    Whoa there, hold your horses, that is a blatant lie and you know it. The one complaint filed this Fall was an allegation of early campaigning and potential use of personal funds to make some posters. The candidate in question received nearly double the votes of anyone else, a margin far beyond the potential for this slight violation to warrant invalidation.

    DMC was a wholly different case- the Spring report lists multiple violations, including campaigning unaccompanied in residence halls, use of a personal printer, and using a coupon at CDC not made available to other candidates, all of which is backed with evidence. In addition, DMC’s margin of victory was only 1300 to 1150.

    Don’t chalk up to misogyny that which can be attributed to common sense: DMC broke multiple rules in a situation in which that could have explained their victory margin. The candidate this year might have had a small violation, but it was insignificant compared to his margin of victory.

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.

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