Low student interest in campus voting proportionate to equally low USG representative engagement

Democratic government functions on the idea that a group of elected officials can acutely and accurately satisfy the wants and needs of the public they’re chosen to represent. The Undergraduate Student Government at ASU operates in the same way.

Under the banner of USG, each campus has its own government to represent the specific and unique needs of that campus. The different USGs operate fairly sovereignly from one another.

At a University of more than 80,000 students, USG representatives constitute less than one percent of the total student population.

The next election is scheduled for March 29 and 30, during which students will have the chance to elect an entirely new student government body if they so desire. However, campaign laws prohibit candidates from declaring their candidacy until the Tuesday following spring break, leaving them only two weeks to campaign.

The regulations surrounding the campaigning process are purposely both strict and vague, Tempe USG President Isaac Miller said. This was done to eliminate as much unfair competition as possible.

“It could be very easily understood that if someone said, ‘I’m running,’ that would be campaigning,” Miller said. “I think it’s helpful because it makes campaigning strictly two weeks.”

The amount of votes cast by students fluctuates every year, he said. If a group of students have particular interest in the elections — such as a change in funding for their school — they usually turnout in greater numbers. 

“This last election demonstrated we had some more work to do,” he said. “We had about 2,400 voters.”

Tempe USG’s last election drew about five percent of that campus’ student population, according to the University's latest enrollment numbers. That percentage would never be viewed as a healthy turnout for a national election, Miller said. 

While voter turnout is low at Tempe, other campuses also struggle to engage students in the democratic process.

USG West Vice President of Services Joseph Muzupappa said only about 300 or 400 of his campus' 4,000 full-time students live on campus. 

Muzupappa said student government needs to find ways to engage with students who are largely commuters. 

"I think it starts with getting our commuter students to stay a full day on campus instead of just being on campus for just the hour and a half they have class," he said.

Likewise, USG Polytechnic President Eric Frazier said student engagement is a tangible obstacle for small campuses.

"Historically, the smaller campuses have had much smaller voter turnout," he said. "I know that student engagement in a smaller community has more to do with person-to-person engagement."

However, student governments on smaller campuses have a dichotomous opportunity to be engaged with their constituents than their larger counterparts do, Frazier said.

He said engaging with students in person enables the student body to become aware of the resources USG makes available to them.

"That's a very common one that comes up," Frazier said. "They're not aware that student government exists, or they're not aware how much influence it has."

USG Downtown Vice President of Policy Ryan Boyd said students are not reached as often as they could be, unless they have friends involved in government. Candidates make an effort to contact their acquaintances through Facebook messages, email and text messages, though a candidate can only message so many people.

“You get messages if you’re friends with them,” Boyd said. “If not, you’ll only be bothered on campus.”

Throughout the election season, executive candidates from West, Polytechnic and Downtown are allowed $750 to spend on their campaign, which they are required to supply out of pocket, Boyd said.

Executive candidates from Tempe are able to spend $1,250, while senatorial candidates are allowed $250, according to the USG elections manual.

A debate is held prior to elections, though its effectiveness is dependent on student turnout. The Tempe USG debate took place on March 23 at 6 p.m. in the MU North Plaza. Downtown USG's debate also took place on March 23 at 6 p.m., in POST 135. Polytechnic USG hosted a debate in the Student Union at 11:30 p.m. on March 24. West USG has a debate scheduled for March 28 at 7 p.m. in the Verde Multi-Purpose Room.

“It doesn’t do that much unless you’re in a competitive election,” Boyd said. “Otherwise, it’s just your supporters and their supporters.”

Boyd said getting involved in student government came with a great deal of learning on the job and a heavy stress on his schedule.

“My first campaign: 17 straight days. I ended up skipping classes,” he said. “You want the edge. You've always got to have the edge.”

USG control over student fees

Voting is important for students who have a stake in upcoming policy changes. Most recently, Tempe USG passed a recommendation for an increase in the Student Programming Fee. All ASU students are required to pay $25 per semester to cover student programming. This money goes directly toward USG’s budget for clubs and other student organizations. 

Although Tempe USG passed the recommendation, a bill increasing the fee will have to be voted on in the future by the remaining campuses. If passed, the bill would increase the fee by $5 per semester for each student, resulting in a net gain of $600,000.

USGP President Frazier said his senate did not see a need to have a formal vote on the recommendation, because their support for it was unanimous. Their support was backed up by face-to-face outreach Frazier and his colleagues conducted on campus.

"I did absolutely try to be as transparent as possible with this process," he said. "I spoke to at least 200 students about it."

The Tempe Senate tabled the vote on the recommendation initially, because several students spoke out against the fee increase at USG meetings. This form of student involvement is instrumental to USG’s ability to function well, Tempe Senate president Nicholas Haney said. 

“I think a lot of students underestimate the power the administration has given us to be that voice for them,” he said. “I always tell the Senators if three — or even two — students say we should have a second look at something, why wouldn’t we?”

Bills have to work their way through the Senate before they can be passed. A bill often originates in the Senate, usually the result of a Senator who perceives a need on campus and writes a bill to address that need. After that, the bill goes to the floor and the Senators give it its first read. They can then vote to move it to second read and scrutinize the bill beyond its nominal purpose.

After second read, the Senate votes on the bill. It either passes or is voted down. 

“If it’s a bill I feel needs more discussion, I usually urge the senators to table second read until next meeting,” Haney said.

USG presidents have the ability to veto decisions made by the Senate, though Haney said he does not believe any vetoes will be levied this semester. 

Representation for each college

Haney said it is important for the Senate to address needs of their student constituents, no matter how specific.

“If you have a question specific to your college, I’ll make sure a senator from your college handles it,” he said.

Appointing Senate committees is one of Haney’s largest responsibilities as an individual, because he said it will set the course for the rest of the year.

Haney said the Senate’s job, first and foremost, is to maintain relationships with the rest of the campus. As a result, voting on legislation becomes more of an ancillary job duty.

“There’s way more we do than just pass bills,” he said. “We never try to rush. If there’s student input, we need to hear it.”

Haney said he would like to see senators engage in more out-of-office outreach. By engaging the students face-to-face, he said senators have an opportunity to show their constituents how much power they have over the student government.

“It’s on senators, but I also think it’s on the student body to realize they have a voice,” Haney said.

Outside of the Senate, USG has an executive staff, made up of a given campus’ president, vice president of services, vice president of policy and a chief of staff. The executive staff lobbies at the State Capitol for the student body and oversees USG operation as a whole.

Miller said he sees USG as a way for a select group of students to advocate for the needs of the average student, who may not have time to sit in on meetings, lobby at the State Capitol and do the rest of the work USG of any campus does.

USG represents students at the city, state and sometimes national level, in addition to their work on campus, Miller said. At the city and state level, representation is usually in regard to policies which affect ASU students. At the national level, he said it’s usually to get a presidential candidate or other national figure to visit the school.

USG members as state employees

Members of the student government are in a unique position when they represent students. Although they themselves are students, they do collect a paycheck from the University, technically making them school employees. 

Educational Outreach and Student Services at ASU dedicates $45,000 toward USGD paychecks every year, Boyd said. University representatives were unable to verify that number, though.

On its face, USG would appear to be a student organization, but the fact that its members are on school payroll may make the organization a department of the University, which Boyd said creates an interesting question for student government as a whole. Working as an employee of ASU is technically working as an employee of the state government. 

“Are we having state money go toward state lobbying?” Boyd asked. “Whether we’re a department or a student organization, no one knows.”

Campaigning for student interests can be arduous work, especially when it comes time for USG to work with other organizations, such as University Boards and Committees which are incorporated under Associated Students of ASU.

The USG presidents are responsible for appointing heads to these boards.

UBCs cover nearly every conceivable need students have, ranging from parking and transit to athletics. They are meant to streamline student needs directly to the University

“University interests and students’ interests are not the same, not at all,” he said. 

And because student interests and University interests do not always overlap, UBCs exist to achieve a balancing act between the two.

For students with busy schedules, working on a board or committee combines a low level of commitment — usually meeting once or twice a month — with important decision-making on University-wide policies. Despite the combination of these factors, UBCs have a hard time filling all of their positions. 

Statewide student government

In the past, a statewide coalition was the only advocate for student needs at all of the Arizona universities. That coalition, the Arizona Students' Association, was replaced in 2011 by USG as the primary form of student representation. ASASU is the leftover organization at ASU, comprised of USG, Graduate and Professional Students Association and the Programming and Activities Board.

However, there is a move toward bringing back a statewide coalition in an improved implementation, Boyd said.

“This is purely just student government members in an extra capacity,” he said. “It’s purely meant to collaborate.”

Miller said he believes such an organization would enable student governments to accomplish more work for their student bodies.

“I’m very much in favor of a statewide coalition,” he said. “I don’t think we got enough done this year.”

If students from all three state universities were able to unify in making their voices heard, Miller said their work would be made easier.

“If everyone shows, you got 115-120,000 constituents, all of a sudden you (have) got to pay attention,” Miller said. 

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated how much money the University allocated to USG. This version has been updated with the correct information.

Related links:

USG Tempe votes to recommend $5 increase in student programming fee

Tempe USG votes on two controversial student fee renewals

Reach the reporter at jwbowlin@asu.edu or follow @mrjoshuabowling on Twitter.

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