Student government has a bad reputation on college campuses — and for good reason. The institution is filled to the brim with careerists. Most student government representatives are far more concerned with padding their resumes than actually bettering their school.
As a result, student government doesn’t really do much. In the mind of most of its so-called “leaders,” the job is done once you win the election. At most, representatives will tinker around the edges of campus life. And they tend to give themselves a good pat on the back for doing so. This sort of behavior renders the entire institution little more than a formality. Change will never happen if representatives aren’t interested in governing.
These are the sad truths about student government. But not all assumptions made about the institution are true. For example, there is a common misconception that you need a ton of resources to successfully mount a student government campaign.
While not true, I understand where it comes from. Big, national groups — particularly, conservative ones such as Turning Point USA — have funneled tons of money into student government races across the country. But funding college races just isn’t a good investment.
Most student government races don’t require a lot of resources, and it isn’t hard to win a seat with a grassroots campaign. The turnout and enthusiasm — or lack thereof — is such that the typical “win number” for a student government seat is quite low. In other words, even at big schools, you typically don’t need that many votes to win.
I know this from my own experience. Back in March, my student organization at the University of Michigan fielded two candidates of our own in a Central Student Government election. Both ran on virtually identical platforms.
The candidates’ main issue was divesting our school from fossil fuels. It’s estimated that the University of Michigan has up to $1.2 billion of its endowment invested in the nonrenewable energy source. Though a relatively small percentage of the overall $12.4 billion, it’s still a gigantic sum of money. Our candidates called for the university to end their role in climate devastation. They also ran reforming school sexual assault protocol, appropriating more funds for campus mental health services and canceling school on Election Day (that last proposal was especially popular).
After developing our perfect platform, we had to figure out how we were going to win. The entire effort was pretty last-minute. We couldn’t campaign in person due to COVID-19, so we had no choice but to try and do things remotely.
Our plan was simple: We were going to message as many people as possible and beg them to vote for our candidates.
We wrote up a standardized text telling people who to vote for, where to vote and what our candidates were running on. Then, members of our organization took the text and spammed our on-campus friends. Our email list also encouraged subscribers to vote for our candidates. Finally, we spread the message via our organization’s Twitter.
This was the extent of our campaigning. We didn’t knock on dorm doors, we didn’t make pins for our candidates, etc. The only equipment we ever needed were our phones.
Then came the election. Polls were open for a full two days and students cast their ballots online. I went into the voting period quite optimistic. I reckoned COVID-19 would depress turnout below the usual rate, which is already quite low. My vote estimate for our candidates, given how many people we texted, was well above the projected threshold for victory.
At the University of Michigan, the voting for Central Student Government elections is divided by school. One of our candidates ran in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts election. It was the far more competitive race. Thirty-two declared candidates and a bunch of write-ins were vying for 14 seats.
Our other candidate was running in the graduate school election. He didn’t declare his candidacy by the deadline, so he was a write-in. But that didn’t really matter since there were only four declared candidates with seven seats up for grabs. In other words, we just needed to be the third best write-in — and we got the job done. We sailed to a cool fifth place finish with only 38 votes. The number was well below my prediction, but it got the job done. Victory was never really in doubt. The other election, however, wasn’t such a cakewalk.
I recall awaiting the results with bated breath. Polls didn’t close until 12 a.m., and the unofficial results didn’t come out until about an hour later. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out in our favor this time.
Our candidate managed to get 210 votes, but only came in 17th place. In the previous semester’s election, that vote total would’ve been good for a top-three finish. Contrary to my prediction, turnout was up. Quarantine seemed to leave everyone with nothing better to do than vote. In the end, our candidate was about 50 votes away from getting the seat. It was a little discouraging but, given our lack of preparation, it was an impressive result. Since one of our candidates won, we could still rest easy knowing we’d have some representation in student government.
I hope this story will help diffuse some of the anxiety surrounding student government. It’s not nearly as intimidating as it might seem. Winning a seat doesn’t require you to be a seasoned politician or have a robust campaign infrastructure. As I’ve demonstrated, you can win by simply mobilizing enough of your friends to help get the word out.
If you feel like you have something to offer your school, or if you know someone who does, run! Victory is within reach — just make sure you’re running for the right reasons. Student government doesn’t need more representatives padding their resumes. What it does need, though, is honest, concerned students to replace them.