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UA group advocates for parties

Heather Buchanan

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In order to address their concerns with the current Student Government Association executive branch, including lack of diversity, low participation and corruption, a group of students came together to propose a solution.

The United Alabama Project, described by members as “the campus version of a NGO, non-governmental organization,” has drafted and submitted a proposal titled “A Step in the Democratic Direction: The Partisan Reform Initiative.” The document suggests the implementation of political parties as a solution to some of the problems UAP sees in the SGA.

Andrew Parks, a senior majoring in political science and the UAP director of political advocacy, said they addressed the proposal to the SGA Elections Board because the current elections manual isn’t conducive to the formation of political parties.

“We want to write a new portion of the code that treats political parties as their own entity and gives them a special set of rules separate from what you have for an independent candidate’s campaign, because those are two different animals,” Parks said.

The United Alabama Project formed in November 2013 as a group of students saw a need to address the atmosphere at the University.

“At that time we had a group of about five or six students who had come together after the segregation issue presented itself in sororities who were deeply concerned about the state of affairs on campus, both in a social sense and in a political sense,” Parks said.

The proposal lists lack of diversity, absence of recurring participation from both voters and candidates and corruption among the issues affecting the current SGA elections process.

UAP examined the last six election cycles dating back to 2009. One such display shows SGA voter turnout for the last six years has hovered around one-third of eligible voters.

“That average is roughly half of the overall voter turnout in national elections, and that’s a serious concern to us because there are a number of different studies that have come out that talk about the sort of lack of faith that younger generations have in the democratic system,” Parks said.

The other side of the participation problem is the number of candidates who run for executive positions. The SGA executive elections frequently see a low number of contested elections; this spring, only two of the seven elections are contested.

“We have a campus of 36,000 people now, and in those 36,000 we can’t find 14 people to run for seven different executive positions?” Parks said.

UAP compared UA SGA elections to those elections at universities with functioning political party systems in place, including University of California, Berkeley; the University of Florida; and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Kelsey Keny, a senior majoring in journalism and electronic media at UTK and current student body president, said she contributed information about UTK’s student government to UAP.

Keny said this election year the UTK student government has three executive office positions open with a total of eight candidates and no uncontested elections.

“An uncontested election is not good for anyone,” she said. “It doesn’t challenge anyone to come up with better ideas, it doesn’t hold anyone accountable for serving the best that they can, it doesn’t give voters a choice. If voters don’t have a choice, then why should they care?”

At UTK, Keny said there are no set political parties in place; instead, candidates have the option to file their party affiliation with their candidacy qualifying statement. 

One benefit Keny noted of running as a group was the ability to broadcast their shared message to a wider group of constituents.

Parks said having established political parties would also create a bank of knowledge that could be passed down through generations of party leaders. This tradition could prevent violations of the elections manual that stem from simply not understanding the rules.

“If you create a partisan system, if you create organizations that are around specifically to run for office, you’re going to create a professional class of campaigners,” he said. “And if you create that professional class, they’re going to know the rules.”

Parks said established parties can also provide accountability for candidates through increasing the penalties for violations to affect the entire party as opposed to an individual candidate.

One form of a political party has taken shape this election season: the Capstone Coalition. The group of 13 senatorial candidates is planning to write a charter and apply to become an organization on campus.

“We hope to foster a spirit of cooperation within different groups and colleges on campus, offer a diversity of voices within student government, and create a sense of unity in building an Alabama that is even better than the already-great university we have today,” Sam Ostrow, a freshman majoring in history and political science and a party chair for Capstone Coalition, stated in a press release.

The only concern UAP had for a political party system was the potential to exclude some members of the student body.

“It may alienate some people in the sense that they don’t want to vote for one person because the parties don’t entirely encompass what they believe,” said UAP Director of Community Engagement Madelyn Schorr, a junior majoring in anthropology and art.

Schorr said the SGA Elections Board has asked that the Senate approve the proposal before they look to change anything. A resolution for approval was to be addressed at the Senate meeting last week, but the Senate didn’t meet due to inclement weather. If the Senate doesn’t pass the resolution, Schorr said they aren’t finished yet.

Parks said he ultimately hopes to see more people care about the student government at the University of Alabama. He said he thinks a partisan system could fix the level of apathy on campus.

“When we have this underground organization, this one-party rule that’s content to rule but not actually do anything, when they’re complacent like they are, that’s never going to happen,” Parks said. “That’s why I believe so strongly in the partisan system – if we can get a couple partisan organizations running on real issues again, and get not even all but just some of them elected and SGA starts to do something, then it’s going to start to matter.”

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UA group advocates for parties