The Empty Ballot

ASUC elections
Photo credit: Daily Cal/Michael Drummond, 2014

On House of Cards, Frank Underwood quipped, “Politicians can’t resist making promises they can’t keep.”[1] As the ASUC elections dawn upon Berkeley, our fledgling politicians await unknowing freshmen on Sproul Plaza, hoping to sell overambitious platforms and promises they won’t be able to fulfill. Those who have survived this rite of passage in previous years avoid Sproul like measles, but inevitably cannot escape the ubiquitous election profile pictures or the obnoxious social media wars accusing candidates of racism, sexism, and fat-shaming. Someone – probably a school official – will be called a “modern day Hitler”.[2]

The ASUC elections, then, are an annual exercise in taking the worst aspects of contemporary American democracy: two parties dominate elections in which name-calling is a staple, those few who shout loudest make their special interest heard, and a senate that takes symbolic but pointless actions is elected. In the last two years, bold and impactful actions have been taken, like the endorsement of the word “hxstory” to “validate every story,” demonstrating the strength of the ASUC’s stand against sexism.[3] Women across the globe surely felt the reverberations of such glorious actions.

Other bold and impactful actions are more recent. Less than two months ago, the ASUC announced the use of $15,000 to spend on website renovations, with The Berkeley Group acting as a consultant and receiving $3,000; make nothing of the fact that Hannah Frankl, a sitting ASUC senator, is also a member of The Berkeley Group.[4] Other paradigm-shifting actions include condemning anti-Semitism, expressing no confidence in the Regents or President Napolitano, and demanding justice for the 43 in Ayotzinapa – imaginative acts that improved the plight of approximately zero Berkeley students.[5]

Such inefficient, symbolic, and empty actions would sting less were Berkeley a utopia with no real problems to address. Alas, that is not the case, and despite Berkeley’s reputation as an institution of excellence, a public university serving more than 27,000 undergraduates will have its fair share of student grievances.[6] Class sizes are too large, tuition hikes plague the university, protests against these tuition hikes are disrupting classes that are already too expensive, sexual assault is a consistent problem, and the cost of textbooks could probably single-handedly bankrupt a small nation. There is also the issue of representation. At least 20% of the student body are conservatives.[7] Despite this diversity, most of the ASUC’s actions are geared towards the far left – exemplified by their passage of a bill calling against Bill Maher’s commencement speech, which at best garnered 6,000 signatures, or a mere 22% of the student body.[8] And despite 20% of the student body being conservative, zero members supported by the Berkeley College Republicans currently sit on the senate.

It would be pointless to criticize the ASUC if they weren’t given the resources or the mandate to solve the problem. But the ASUC has a mouthwatering budget of more than $1 million, including almost $130,000 allocated to the senate itself – money that seems to do less good than money taken from civil forfeiture.[9] The ASUC also has an adequate mandate, and has a University administration willing to routinely meet with it – though the ASUC and its members have shown in years past activism and the willingness to be uncooperative, be it walking out on Chancellor Dirks or protesting every action of President Napolitano.[10]

However, it seems as though the problem of an ineffective and lame-duck student government with a focus on facetious, pointless solutions is not limited to Berkeley. Take the absolute absurdity of UC Irvine’s latest law to prevent the American flag from being flown on campus because it is a symbol of “colonialism and imperialism”.[11] Clearly, students across UC Irvine felt liberated that the Orwellian symbol of oppression and tyranny was being removed from a campus that benefits from federal and state funding, and that literally resides in the United States of America. Take the sheer hypocrisy of UCLA students questioning whether a Jewish student would be able to adequately represent the student body, by virtue of her being Jewish.[12] Not only is it astoundingly narrow to assume that her Jewishness would cause her to be biased regarding questions about divestment from Israel, but such religious scrutiny would not be posed to members of other religions. All this controversy despite the fact that foreign policy is not a primary responsibility for student governments.

The focus of student governments in California on identity politics, at this point, seems undeniable. Back at home in Berkeley, ASUC elections dramatically play on identity politics, protest, and intangibles such as the “creation of safe spaces.” Make no mistake: a majority of the student body is not interested in supporting disruptive protests like By Any Means Necessary (BAMN, the backer of the Defend Affirmative Action Party),[13] or in redefining the spelling of women to ‘womxn’, or interested in arguing about the impact of the word intifada.[14] Most of us are too busy being sleep deprived, being poor, or waiting for the 51B to focus on out-shouting those who create safe spaces that stifle intellectual conversation (re: Bill Maher). Because of Berkeley’s competitive and difficult academic culture, too few people have the patience to fight what ultimately becomes a lopsided, extremely-left leaning student government. Too few of us are interested in elections that are ultimately as much about popularity as they are about who can shout the loudest.

There are two ways in which this must change: first, a shift in invisible impact to truly impactful solutions – rather than symbolic actions that affect people outside campus instead of on it; this itself should require a mandatory campaigning process that involves debates and question and answer sessions, which allow the student body to truly compare candidates. Second, the growth of more student parties and satirical ones like Squelch, which in their growth and their platforms showcase the absurdity of ASUC elections and campaigning. Ultimately, elections must become something more than a grueling, midterm-esque routine that leaves no one the happier. Elections must engage the entire student body, rather than becoming a tedious process of electing divisive students who only represent a minority of the student body.

Or, we could just replace the ASUC with a monarchy.

Disclaimer: The Berkeley Political Review received $4,000 in funding from the ASUC during the 2014-2015 academic year.

[1] “Quotes for Francis Underwood.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0369160/quotes>.

[2] “Students Walk Out at Meeting with UC President.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzDmM5TP_7c>.

[3] April 18th, 2014, as an invitation to the Perspectives festival.

[4] Hutson, Sonja. “ASUC Senate Committee Corrects Information in Website Bill | DailyCal.org.” The Daily Californian. The Daily Californian, 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dailycal.org/2015/02/03/asuc-corrects-information-website-bill/>.

[5] “ASUC Central Drive – Bills Passed.” ASUC Central Drive – Bills Passed. Associated Students of the University of California, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <https://drive.google.com/a/berkeley.edu/folderview?id=0B7_j_4L-LvIWc1l3cTEwTGZWVEE&usp=drive_web&tid=0B7_j_4L-LvIWd0pIaldkVFBMRDg#list>.

[6] “By the Numbers.” UC Berkeley. UC Berkeley, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2015. <http://www.berkeley.edu/about/bythenumbers>.

[7] “Berkeley Freshmen Are More Liberal and Less Religious than Their National Counterparts.” Berkeley Freshmen Are More Liberal and Less Religious than Their National Counterparts. UC Berkeley News, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2005/01/24_freshmen.shtml>.

[8] Pitcher, Michelle. “ASUC Invites Bill Maher to Participate in Public Forum | DailyCal.org.” The Daily Californian. The Daily Californian, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dailycal.org/2014/11/18/asuc-invites-bill-maher-participate-public-forum/>.

[9][9] Lee, Dennis. “Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) 2014-2015 Budget.” (2014): n. pag. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://asuc.org/modern/sites/default/files/docs/2014-2015%20ASUC%20Budget.pdf>.

[10] Morris, J.D. “In Meetings with UC Berkeley Students, Napolitano Hears Criticism and Policy Talk | DailyCal.org.” The Daily Californian. The Daily Californian, 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dailycal.org/2014/02/14/meetings-uc-berkeley-students-napolitano-hears-criticism-policy-talk/>.

[11] Reuters. “UC Irvine Student Government Bans National Flags From Campus Areas.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 06 Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/06/uc-irvine-ban-flag_n_6821316.html>.

[12] Frenklak, Rachel. “Submission: USAC Members Should Apologize for Discriminatory Act.” Daily Bruin. Daily Bruin, 18 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://dailybruin.com/2015/02/18/submission-usac-members-should-apologize-for-discriminatory-act/>.

[13] Provencio, Elaina. “DAAP Announces 4 ASUC General Election Candidates | DailyCal.org.” The Daily Californian. The Daily Californian, 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dailycal.org/2015/03/16/daap-announces-four-asuc-general-election-candidates/>.

[14] Fitzgerald, Francis. “Hashtag Used in ASUC Campaign Announcement Spurs Controversy | DailyCal.org.” The Daily Californian. The Daily Californian, 13 Mar. 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dailycal.org/2015/03/13/hashtag-used-asuc-campaign-announcement-spurs-controversy/>.