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Wednesday, August 5

Today's Paper

Saving our democracy: calls for reform to USG

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

The Undergraduate Student Government is the prime example of a faux democracy, and thus, it is an illegitimate government in need of immediate reform by the undergraduate student body.

According to Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond, a democracy consists of “free and fair elections” and “the active participation of the people.” USG has fulfilled the first principle, as the Helios voting system allows every undergraduate student to vote privately and without the need for any polling stations. However, USG lacks active participation from its constituents.

The last time the majority of the undergraduate student population voted was in the winter 2017 cycle, when 2,721 of 5,394 students voted, a turnout rate of 50.4 percent. The election in spring 2018, however, saw the turnout rate drop to 35.4 percent, barely crossing the 33 percent turnout required to pass any referenda.

These percentages were calculated using numbers from USG’s past elections page, as well as enrollment numbers from the registrar.

Since winter 2017, we have yet to reach a majority voter turnout at any election, a failure that, especially with a system that easily allows all constituents to vote, leads me to call USG a faux democracy. Furthermore, given that higher voter turnouts are generally viewed as proof of a government’s legitimacy because the constituents have enough faith in their government to dedicate time to voting, USG’s low voter turnout rate leaves me with no choice but to declare it as an illegitimate government formed by a minority of students to speak on behalf of a supposed majority.

Immediately, I must acknowledge two counterarguments to my statement. First, some will argue that the legitimacy of a democracy is not rooted in a majority voter turnout. I remind those people that democracy is rooted in vox populi, or the voice of the people. It is a system of governance where the most important issues — if not every issue — is decided by the majority. However, if the majority in government is decided by a minority of the population, then that government may be a government of the people and for the people, but it is not a government by the people. This is the issue. For if the government is not made by the people, then the issues and desires of the people are not accurately represented and addressed in that government — regardless of how benevolent that government may be. The legitimacy of a democratic government is rooted in vox populi, and that voice of the people can best (and perhaps only) speak through a majority voter turnout.

The second issue that must be addressed here is whether a government made under the auspices of the University can be deemed illegitimate; I say yes. The powers of USG certainly derive from the consent and grant of the University, but the authority and the legitimacy of USG can only come from the undergraduate students for whom that government is constructed. If this were not the case, then it would be possible for the University (or any major authority) to set up a government in any group’s name and claim that that government truly does speak on behalf of the supposed group. However, we know that this is not the case. A government for any group must be legitimized by that group through active and consistent consent, and that consent is shown through active voting. As of now, USG lacks that consent, and, until the majority of the undergraduate population begins voting, USG will remain illegitimate as a result of it.

At this point, I must emphasize that I do not mean this as slander against our representatives in USG. Instead, I state this as a means to provoke change. When people do not vote, it can indicate several things, the most likely being a lack of trust in the government, a disinterest regarding the matters being voted on, a dislike of the candidates, or a belief that their vote doesn’t matter. 

While it will take both the voters and the representatives to increase voter turnout, it is the representatives’ responsibility to fix the four aforementioned issues — and any others that may stop a constituent from voting — so that they can rightfully call themselves representatives of a legitimate government. If there exists a lack of trust in the government, then representatives must find out why and work to mitigate those issues as quickly as possible. If people do not like the agenda of the government, then representatives should change the agenda. If students dislike candidates in an oft-unopposed race, then representatives should encourage people to vote “abstain,” so that the candidates realize that people do not like their platform and that they have other concerns. 

And, most importantly, USG has a responsibility to get people to vote. 

If people do not cast their ballots even after all these attempts to get a higher voter turnout rate, then perhaps we need to rethink the entirety of the relationship between USG and the voters, including the system of governance. For example, we can adopt a parliamentary system of governance, with an unfixed number of U-Councilor seats, so that every candidate who garnered more than a certain number of votes gets a seat in USG. That way, even with a decreased voter turnout, we can ensure that there are more ideologies and constituents being represented in USG.

With that being said, I remind us all that, while democracy may be the most difficult form of government, it is also the one most appropriate for the governance of humanity. It rests on the principle that we all have an unalienable right to have a voice in our own government, but it is upheld only when voters actually utilize that right. A voter turnout under 50 percent threatens the very principle of democracy because a government serves those who keep it in power; when the government derives its authority only from a minority, then the greater but unsaid will of the majority falls on deaf ears. 

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While USG must make changes on its own front, we as voters also have an obligation and a social contract to vote in order to sustain the democratic system. Cast every ballot as if you are the deciding vote in an election, and supervise your representatives as if they were workers in your own company. The benefits for both parties are intertwined with each other.

USG works for the entirety of the year, lobbying the administration for change, bringing benefits to the students, and changing the Princeton undergraduate experience. We, as the voters, get two opportunities per year to change the government and decide the agendas and the platforms that our government will operate on. Utilize it, and claim the government as your own. Give USG a legitimate authority to speak on behalf of all undergraduate students. 

John Adams once said, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.” As I see our young USG begin to wither from votes inappropriately withheld, I write this article hoping to bring some change and hoping that, here at the University, we may have a democracy that proves Adams wrong.

Sajiwan Naicker is a junior in the Department of Philosophy. He can be reached at snaicker@princeton.edu.

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