I hate to break it to everyone, but ASSU election season is fast approaching, and if past years are any indication, it won’t be a shining example of democracy in action. Prepare yourselves for a tenfold increase in chat list spam, aggressive canvassing in the dining halls, several storm-in-a-teacup elections scandals, and an old-growth forest’s worth of fliers. Notably absent from this list, of course, are substantive debate, campaigns focused on real issues that matter, and a clear understanding of what, exactly, the ASSU Senate does.
That last point is the key to the whole elections mess. Most of us have no clue about the Senate’s powers and duties, so we lack any standard by which to assess the candidates’ qualifications. Consequently, we end up voting for our friends, or whoever our interest-group-of-choice endorsed, or whoever is the best at coming up with snappy slogans (preferably, it seems, involving cows). Candidates thus have every incentive to spend money on splashy fliers, suck up to powerful endorsing groups and coalitions, and blanket the campus with their names and faces, even to the point of shouting at people in the dining halls. They also have no incentive to talk about their qualifications or offer concrete policy suggestions in place of vague platitudes. I don’t doubt the good intentions of our current and past Senators, but our current elections culture stacks the deck against them.
Here, I think, is what we all need to remember come election time: the ASSU Senate’s job is to manage our money. Yes, our senators play a vital role in representing student interests to the administration and publicizing various issues on campus. But their primary job is to oversee the disbursement of student activities funds. As a former ASSU official once pointed out to me, we need to stop thinking of the Senate as a legislative body and start thinking of it as our collective money-manager.
Seen from this perspective, most of the components of past campaigns seem irrelevant or misleading. The candidates’ stands on national or international political issues do not matter; the Senate can do nothing about these issues. The candidates’ opinions about high-level University policies are relatively unimportant, because the Senate has little leverage over the upper echelons of the administration. The endorsements candidates collect can be important, but they often say more about their willingness to endorse spending for specific interest groups than their fitness for office.
Our collective confusion about the Senate’s role also hampers our ability to critically assess the Senate’s activities. There are many incredibly valuable things the Senate could be doing in its role as money-manager. Perhaps the most important of these would be holding the ASSU Executives to a more stringent standard when they seek to spend student money on projects of questionable efficacy, such as the Wellness Room boondoggle or the airport shuttle service that ended up costing much more per student than just booking everyone SuperShuttles. And given that the Senate has a unique bird’s-eye view of VSO expenditures, it could also help eliminate overlapping or duplicative spending and thus free up student resources for more productive endeavors. But unless the student body demands that the Senators focus their attention on these unsexy but essential fiscal issues, I don’t think this will be done anytime soon.
So when election day rolls around again, I will cast my vote for candidates who will be effective managers of student resources. Student activism on national and philosophical issues is important, but it has no place in the Senate, which is supposed to represent the views of, and act in the interests of, all students.