Undergraduate Student Government (USG) elections began with a bang last week when presidential candidate Ryan Ozminkowski '18 bought the online domains to his rivals' campaign websites. Throughout the events and controversies that have ensued, public interest in USG elections has skyrocketed to a new high. One can hear conversations about the candidates and referenda across campus, everywhere from Whig-Clio senate debates to late night common room chats.
Despite this year's theatrical elections, I don't think the unfavorable popular perception of USG will change. It's still denigrated as the "government club" and viewed as nothing more than a social group that organizes Lawnparties. This image results from the insularity and poor communication of USG's members. In order for USG to become a relevant governing body to students, its elected officials must become independent leaders and take stands on controversial issues.
It's a common belief among students that no one knows what USG as an organization does besides throw Lawnparties. But that's nonsense. We all see what USG does. We receive the same weekly e-mails from the president and read summaries of Senate meetings in the "Prince." What we don't know is what the people in USG actually do as individuals.
I'm plugged into the campus community. I read all of the major publications and attend public forums. But I don't have the slightest clue as to what my class senators have done since being elected. I know more about what my state's senators do — who serve 1 million people — than my class senators — who serve only 1,300 students.
This happens because we see the same thing each election cycle. Candidates all campaign for office, are elected, go to Frist, and then are never heard again until the next election. Once in office, our leaders hide behind the nebulous name of "USG." The USG media specifies what the USG organization is doing, yet rarely specifies who in USG is doing it.
This isn't how government works in the outside world. When candidates are elected to office, they maintain high public profiles. They inform their citizens about their work by making speeches at public events, offering constituent services, holding town hall meetings, tweeting about bills, creating newsletters, and bringing pork back to their districts. Through these efforts, citizens stay informed about their leaders' actions and can hold individuals accountable for them. Politicians who don't engage with their constituents aren't re-elected.
At Princeton, we can hold USG as an organization accountable for its actions, but it would be difficult to do that for individual officials because we don’t even know if they’ve fulfilled their campaign promises. In the past, USG presidents have held office hours in Frist. While these efforts are commendable for allowing easy access to a key leader, they can be improved. Princeton students are busy. Few can attend a singular meeting with a narrow timeslot on the weekend.
Politicians should be going to their constituents to hear their concerns, not vice versa. Instead, all USG officials — from the president to U-Councilors — should be holding office hours at least on a biweekly basis at locations all around campus, from residential colleges to academic buildings. Such meetings should be highly publicized so that people know when and where they occur.
USG officials could further inform students by creating their own media on which they communicate their activities. With the exception of extraneous quotes in "Prince" reports, students are largely unaware of where their representatives stand on major campus issues. A public Facebook page for each official would go a long way in helping students identify what their representatives are doing and whether they actually represent the students' will.
The lack of knowledge of and inability to differentiate between elected officials stems back to their campaigns. Elections are where USG officials first create their public image and establish their platforms. Fellow columnists Ryan Born and Jan Domingo Alsina have argued that there is nothing political about USG, hence candidates’ platforms should be apolitical. They view USG as a glorified social event organizer, so the candidates should have platforms that merely say, “‘I will get you free gear,’ and nothing else.”
I completely disagree. USG handles loads of political topics. We just don't talk about them. As Ozminkowski writes on his website, "In USG elections, people don't touch controversial issues." USG does or can have a role in a wide range of political topics including: disarming bathroom locks, implementing sexual harassment punishments, evaluating minority affinity housing, providing menstrual products, supporting private prison divestment, demanding sanctuary campus status again, and much more. There are students on all sides of the argument for each one. But none of these issues arise in any of the USG elections. Instead, we spent an hour watching three candidates agree with each other on nearly everything in last week’s presidential debate.
Elections need disagreement on hot-button issues to differentiate candidates and engage voters. Currently, students don't have any "skin in the game." No one stands to win or lose on these issues based on who's elected to office. It creates a never-ending cycle. Because all of the candidates have similar platforms every year, students think that the same initiatives will be executed regardless of whether they vote or not and for whom they vote. As a result, voter turnout is low. This allows USG candidates to campaign little in the future and not take controversial stands because they can get elected simply by the number of friends voting for them instead of by the student body at-large.
USG can only improve its public image by improving its elected officials. Candidates need to run campaigns that encompass controversial issues. Once in office, they must stay involved with the student body by going to their constituents to hear their concerns and providing individualized media that explains their actions in USG. As students, we should demand more from our elected officials.
Liam O’Connor is a sophomore from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.