Opinion | SGA has a representation problem

Justin McCleskey, Contributing Columnist

Justin McCleskey is a senator in the Student Government Association. 

Since its establishment, the UA Student Government Association has had a rather complicated history. Many of its alumni used it as a training ground of sorts for future political careers, including household names like Richard Shelby, Joe Scarborough and George Wallace. A current candidate for U.S. Senate, Katie Britt, previously served as the SGA president.

Whether in opposition or support, the Machine is the driving force behind this training ground, leading many to lifelong careers in journalism, law and government. George Wallace himself gained experience from his two losses challenging Machine candidates. Many others got their start either collaborating with or opposing the Machine, learning to maneuver political factions and run basic campaigns.

The relationship between the SGA and the “real world” isn’t limited to campaigning. Many of the federal government’s “playground politics” have reached the student government level. 

This is evident every Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in the Forum Room. The SGA Senate has adopted a dangerous norm that plagues the U.S. Senate itself; when it comes to representation, we’re significantly behind the curve.

Background

Representation is a commonly explored topic of political science. In a 2014 article, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page tested how separate sets of actors influence the American public policy process. 

They found that economic elites and interest groups had a significant hold on policy outcomes. Average citizens, however, had little to no influence, exposing a bias in representation.

The SGA Senate is eerily similar when it comes to representing student interests. In the most recent session, Sen. Drew St. Charles and I proposed a resolution encouraging the University to provide a living wage. Despite substantial student organization endorsement, this resolution was voted down on two separate occasions. 

Similarly, legislation that favors increased student participation in elections has been voted down multiple times. The SGA, despite any claims otherwise, consistently fails at its most basic duty: to represent the will of the student body.

Statistics

This pattern of ignoring students’ wishes is supported by data. Rather than encouraging legislation, student opinion has the very opposite effect. 

For his recent Bill to Amend the Structure of the Senate, St. Charles measured which pieces of legislation are most likely to be passed. He found that SGA executive endorsements made legislation more likely to be successful. Student organization endorsements, however, correlated with legislation failing. These results show a clear rejection of student input.

It’s worth noting student organization endorsements were not statistically significant at a 90% confidence interval. This, however, seems to prove the argument more. 

“The fact that it’s not statistically significant means that senators rarely ever use student endorsements,” St. Charles said. “The data doesn’t lie: There is a clear lack of student representation in the Senate.

Students aren’t represented in SGA matters. Then who, exactly, is? If the SGA doesn’t serve students, what is its purpose at all? 

Of course, larger factors like the Machine and external politics influence the legislative process of the SGA, but it is those in official positions of power who have the most access to the Senate.

Administrators have an obvious effect on the success of legislation. The most recent Senate meeting featured multiple senators conceding that they favor maintaining strong relationships with administration, even at the expense of legislation supported by the student body. 

While they cannot officially endorse legislation, these circumstances prove that the administration’s input has major ramifications on how senators vote.

Similarly, SGA executives have a significant impact on passing legislation. On average, there are nine SGA endorsements for every non-SGA endorsement. This favorability in the endorsement process extends to passed legislation. 

St. Charles’ results indicate that SGA executive endorsements largely increase the likelihood that any piece of legislation is passed. In light of these results, the SGA’s resistance to lobbying by student organizations is impossible to ignore. 

Implications

The Senate is aware that issues of student representation persist. Last session featured dozens of senators “applauding the intent” of several pieces of legislation representing student interests, but failing to show support in their votes. 

Though they have not made tangible steps to solve it, the Senate knows administration and SGA executives hold more influence on passed legislation than students. While these discrepancies could be addressed internally, students need to be active in ensuring their voices are heard.

Internal solutions can take multiple forms. Senators could materialize on claims that they “support the spirit of student input” and actually start passing legislation that represents their constituents. St. Charles’ Bill to Amend the Structure of the Senate was tabled to committees, but it could be a first step in internal reform, if only SGA senators are willing to step up.

It is also possible for those in administration or SGA executives to use their position of influence to advance student representation. This would require either party being willing to relinquish some of its influence in favor of creating a more equitable campus.

Administration has been making more concerted steps to support students by changing SGA procedure, but these trends must continue. Internal solutions to a lack of student representation all rely on more powerful groups being willing to concede influence, making external solutions necessary to consider. 

In absence of the SGA or administration performing their duties, there are several ways students can address a lack of representation. Whether through speaking at Senate meetings or by endorsing legislation, students can force some level of representation. 

For those concerned about the imbalance of voices in Senate conversations, this is the first step. Senate meetings allow student input at the beginning — something that is increasingly being utilized. Any conversations, though, about SGA representation can be productive, whether through the SGA, conversations or social media.

However, there is no better method to address representation than through the polls. The spring elections give students two ways to gain influence. First, voting in Senate elections allows individuals to directly choose candidates that will actually fight for them. If the current SGA legislative body isn’t doing its duty, it is within students’ power to find those who will. 

Further, selecting responsible SGA executives can increase the alignment of the SGA with student interest, resulting in favorable policy decisions. Students can also support candidates as members of their campaign team. Of course, elections are a complicated issue of their own, but they may be at least one predictor of good student representation.

Until the Senate addresses its own lack of student representation, it is extremely difficult to claim senators are “working for student interest.” To say so, as they continue to vote directly against student wishes, is dishonest and frankly disrespectful to the University they represent.

There are several ways representation could be achieved internally, but this will require SGA senators and executives acting on their current knowledge that the system is biased. This doesn’t appear characteristic of the current SGA Senate, an institution that has continually underserved our campus community. 

Students don’t exist to serve the interests of the SGA. The exact opposite is true. Unless senators are willing to make these changes, meaningful representation will require the power of the polls or a radical systemic change. SGA senators have the opportunity to materialize on claims that they support students and start addressing a lack of representation. If they won’t do their jobs, they can, and will, be replaced. 

Questions? Email the opinions desk at letters@cw.ua.edu.