The University of Alabama is at a crossroads. The social climate of this university is in perhaps its most dynamic state in at least a century. Moving forward, the direction we take will have profound impacts on our future – not just for students but for the larger Tuscaloosa community in which the University resides. Last week, the executive board of The United Alabama Project, of which I am a member, publicly released a proposal to reform our current SGA election process to allow for the formation of political parties. In the proposal, we give a proper articulation of the situation in which we currently find ourselves and how such a reform would allow us to move beyond it.
We begin by laying out the problems currently facing the University of Alabama community, particularly its electoral system.
First, it is no secret that the Student Government Association is historically under-representative of the university it purports to represent. Only two black students have ever been elected to office within the executive branch, and only one other non-white student has accomplished the same feat. Additionally, in the past three election cycles, though women have consistently made up over half of the student population, they have constituted only a quarter of the positions within the executive branch. It’s no secret that marginalized groups often face difficulties in organizing proper representation, and the enactment of a party system would allow these groups to do so much more with ease and legal backing.
Second, SGA elections routinely fail to bring out voters. Though the 2013 election had one of the highest voter turnouts in campus history, not even a third of students actually participated. This likely has many causes, but perhaps none is more insidious than the possibility these low numbers represent a lack of faith in the electoral system. Partisan reform would not only allow students to identify themselves with certain parties but also encourage candidates to coordinate campaign resources and outreach efforts.
Additionally, there is a consistent lack of effective and healthy competition in our SGA elections. Given that the University is home to one of the largest National Merit Scholar populations in the country as well as an extensive Honors College, it would be foolish to suspect this is due to a lack of qualified candidates. A party system would make independent coalition building and coordinated campaigning significantly easier.
Finally, there is no way to separate the numerous ills of our university’s political system from the long and unfortunate history it has involving the Machine. Though only so much blame, if any, can be applied to current Machine-affiliated students, it is well-documented that past Machine activity has contributed meaningfully to the regression of the University’s political climate. A cohesive and legal alternative – which would have the additional benefit of encouraging the Machine to come aboveground – would go a long way in creating a healthier and more diverse campaign season.
Commitment to tradition is perhaps the most important identifier that The University of Alabama can claim. However, political stagnation, disenfranchisement and corruption simply cannot remain an aspect of that commitment any longer. In this time of seismic shifts within our school, we must renew our ardent quest for fair and just politics to teach students of today and tomorrow their role in a 21st-century democracy. With each class that graduates without that knowledge, we have done a grave disservice, both to them and to our nation as a whole. It is time we turn the page and unite Alabama.
Chisolm Allenlundy is a junior majoring in economics and philosophy. His column runs weekly.