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Who are we really electing?

Following the campus-wide winter election season, I think it is important to ask ourselves how much we know about the students who ran to represent us, and the actual purpose of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) elections. This is especially relevant for the candidates who sought the Class of 2022 senate positions. When looking through the freshman candidate statements and campaign materials, there seemed to be a few common themes, which included keeping students informed, improving the overall Princeton experience, and, predictably, supporting policy changes that “reflect [our] interests.” However, none of these statements were groundbreaking or particularly informative. As a representative of the freshman class, a candidate is expected to act in the interests of their constituents. A candidate running for a student government position doesn’t have to explicitly state that they won’t be corrupt, as I highly doubt USG gives enough opportunity for there to be an individual who is trying to consolidate power for personal gain. Thus, purely based on the multitude of almost identical candidate statements, it’s hard to distinguish what makes each individual unique. I ultimately found myself asking: “Why should I vote for you?”

I’m going to be honest with you. I didn’t end up voting. Not because I didn’t have time or because I forgot, but because I was uninspired by the freshmen who decided to run. As the Daily Princetonian Editorial Board stated, “The candidates [did] not distinguish their positions from those of their opponents.” Although the board did not write about the senate candidates and instead focused on the USG presidential election, I believe the point is still relevant. The freshman class boasted the largest amount of senate candidates at 15, and while the race was competitive, it was only because of the sheer number of candidates and not because of distinct platforms proposed.

I do want to say that, while the three previously mentioned initiatives are important, their vague platforms reflect the simplistic and, frankly, boring attempts at pandering to all students in order to gain a majority vote. Sure, it can seem like a savvy decision to try to create a large voter bloc through a universal platform, but as the title character of “Hamilton” stated in response to why he chose to endorse Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr in the election of 1800: “Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.” Thus, a campaign opened by a statement focused on appeasing the masses is weaker than a pointed, structured platform that addresses a couple solid goals. Our USG Senate candidates have the responsibility to provide us with an idea of what they aim to achieve if we elect them. Without a clear path, there is no incentive for voters to support them. To the candidates and those who may consider running for any elected position: If you have objectives that tell your voters exactly what you plan to do, you demonstrate a level of dedication that shows you are serious about making a difference once you have the power to do so.

This lack of an organized and structured vision brings me to my second point: the real reason people decide to run for USG. I can’t help but wonder if some become candidates for the purpose of actually improving Princeton, or if they just like the idea of seeing the words “Undergraduate Student Government” on their résumé. Because of the lack of requirements for a candidate, USG is an accessible option to add credibility to an individual’s background. Thus, while I want to assume the best of people, there is always the possibility they are only looking to elevate their status. As a voter, I want to believe that my representatives have some sort of a plan in order to make sure that their time in USG will actually accomplish something beneficial for the student body. However, other than in the officially released candidate statements, I never once saw any policy or initiative-driven materials that supported a freshman’s initial “goals.” So why should we be voting for anyone if that wasn’t the purpose of their running in the first place?

Although voting in our country has recently become centered around partisan lines, politics on campus instead focuses on popularity. With no way to differentiate candidates, votes come down to how many people they friend on Facebook and the number of coffee dates they can fit in between lecture and precept. Thus, voting is not determined by candidates’ platforms, but instead by the number of likes on their cover photos, ultimately diminishing the entire purpose of candidate statements. We need to start taking USG elections more seriously as an opportunity for people to present novel and impactful changes to the Princeton community.

Consequently, I propose that USG requires senate candidates to have at least two specific objectives on which they can base their promises and actions while a part of the governing body, rather than just stating they would like to increase sustainability on campus or improve legislation within USG. I’m not saying that those interests are not important, but I think that someone running for a position from which they can impart change should have a stronger approach for doing so. I believe that, especially as a freshman, there is more drive to want to give back to a community that is still exciting and new. So if you’re willing to run, make sure you’re running on something you’re passionate about. Voters, our representatives only have so long to be in power. Let’s make sure that in the future those we select will actually be worth our support.

Brigitte Harbers is a first-year from New York, N.Y. She can be reached at bharbers@princeton.edu.

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