Is This What Democracy Looks Like?
Getting elected is tough; getting re-elected is not
Each September brings a sea of new (shining, hopeful, motivated, etc.) faces to Morningside Heights as the youngest classes of each college join their respective communities. This army of newly anointed adults, brimming with academic, social, and political potential, sets old Columbia clichés into motion, too: overcrowded East Campus hallways, furiously recruiting clubs, lanyards galore, and the birth of first-year politicos. As the early weeks of the semester slip by, party crowds thin, clubs relax, and lanyards slowly disappear. First-year student council elections, however, have a more lasting impact on campus.
This is not to say that first-year council members reliably bring much change to campus. Each year first-year candidates seem to trot out the same hopeful, yet ultimately unfeasible, campaign promises: subway subsidies, meal plan reform, air conditioning in every dorm. With elections taking place a mere three weeks into the school year, it’s hard to blame candidates for lacking an achievable vision for a campus they hardly yet know.
While first-year council members’ promises often amount to little, history shows that first-years who get elected tend to win big in subsequent campaigns. As a 2016 Columbia Spectator article pointed out, between 2006 and 2016, 37 of 50 first-year Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) members went on to be re-elected. Following the article’s publication, 20 of the 22 council members across CCSC, Barnard Student Government Association (SGA) Representative Council, and Engineering Student Council (ESC) who were elected as first-years in the Fall semesters of 2016 and 2017, won races the subsequent Spring.
Incumbents win in part because of the name recognition they enjoy; between countless email announcements and Facebook posts, it becomes difficult to forget the names of one’s class representatives.
Equally at fault, though, is a general disinterest across campus in the work of the various student councils. By the time first-years reach their second semester, it seems all excitement for student government has drained away. This phenomenon was demonstrated last academic year by a sharp decline in political parties between the first and second semesters. Between the Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 elections, the number of parties with candidates vying for Columbia College Class of 2021 President and Vice-President dropped from seven to one. Similarly, over the same period, the ESC Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections for Class of 2021 dropped from a five party field to an uncontested race.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
In the Spring 2018 election cycle, only five of 22 CCSC and three of 22 ESC races were contested. Though numerous at-large and executive board positions were filled by new faces, every election in which an incumbent ran was won by that incumbent, and every single class level race in both schools was won by the incumbent party, though some parties made changes to their ticket. SGA elections, while arguably more competitive, still saw 10 of 21 races go uncontested. The General Studies Student Council bans uncontested races in its bylaws and saw six of its 11 races nullified during the Spring 2018 election cycle for lack of candidates.
Furthermore, even with contentious proposals like last Spring’s CCSC renewable energy and climate change referendum, voter turnout has struggled to reach even 30 percent, which happens to be the required threshold of votes for a referendum to even be valid, according to the CCSC constitution. Thirty percent of Columbia College amounted to 1,400 students in Spring 2018; exactly 1,414 students voted in the referendum. Fourteen fewer votes and what was touted as a wildly popular initiative that earned 84 percent student support would have been technically dead on arrival.
Of course, one may reasonably respond to this information: “so what?” Students who have taken a political science class may have heard the term “rational ignorance” in reference to a voter’s decision not to educate themselves about an issue if the cost of doing so outweighs the benefits. The concept seems applicable here. Regardless of who it is that wins a student council election, each council will continue to operate in largely the same way, with no drastic impact on the day to day life of Columbia undergraduates.
The hard work that student council members put in aside, no single council member, or even coalition of members, seems capable of affecting large scale change on the university level. For example, the administration would not entertain any severe sanction on the College Republicans last Fall as called for by the Black Students’ Organization, despite a request for an official investigation by CCSC. On a smaller scale, a CCSC initiative aimed at providing free tampons university-wide has resulted in little more than the placement of empty plastic bins in campus bathrooms. Even historic votes such as this past Spring’s SGA referendum on divestment from Israel and the CCSC referendum on a renewable energy initiative merely reflect recommendations of the student body and have no actual influence on university operations without further action from the administration.
Some might argue that indulging this apathy towards the student council is reflective of a privilege not to care about the role of the University in the world. On the contrary, students have long made their voices heard independently of student government. While university administrators are more apt to view student councils as legitimate bodies for promoting institutional change, decades of activism on Columbia’s campus have proven that students don’t need that legitimacy. April of 2015 saw a five hour sit-in in Low Library by student activist group Columbia Prison Divest—in June, Columbia announced that it would be the first U.S. university to divest its endowment from the private prison industry. In March of 2016, the university announced that it would raise the minimum wage for student workers to $15 per hour following a lengthy activist campaign by Student Worker Solidarity. In April of that same year, another occupation of Low Library, this time for eight days by Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, eventually forced Columbia to move on thermal coal divestment.
The question of how future change will be affected, though, remains to be seen. And, as the Class of 2022 picks their first representatives in the coming weeks, they will take the initial steps towards answering it.