Saxa Politica: Illegitimate legislators

October 6, 2011

This week the Georgetown University Student Association swore in the 27 newly elected student senators elected to serve their fellow classmates for the coming year. Their friends and their fellow residents have likely congratulated them for their victories.

But are congratulations truly in order after this election? The answer is both yes and no.

The GUSA Senate elections drew in significantly more votes than last year’s election. In 2010, there were 1,033 votes cast in the non-at-large elections and 970 votes in the at-large election. This year saw a dramatic increase with 2,040 votes received in the non-at-large elections and 1,523 votes in the at-large election.

A number of Senate seats—especially in freshman residence halls—had races with far more candidates than in the past. Notably, there were seven candidates for New South’s lone senate seat this year compared to only one candidate last year.

Although many have criticized GUSA for having too few candidates to make legitimate elections, that argument certainly can’t be made this year.

However, it may be premature for the student body to rejoice that we have finally fixed the problems that plague GUSA elections. A number of senate districts saw dismal turnouts despite an excellent overall turnout in the elections.

According to data compiled by The Hoya, an upperclassman senator represents an average of 265 students and freshman senators represent approximately 300 of their dormmates. Three members of the newly elected GUSA Senate were voted in with 20 votes or less—this means that less than 10 percent of their constituents voted for them.

This is, however, an improvement from the 2010 elections. Those elections saw a senator elected as a write-in candidate with a total of four votes—his four roommates in his Henle apartment—and four other senators elected with less than 20 votes.

Although no one expects full participation in a GUSA election, having members elected to the senate with such a small number of votes continues to delegitimize the organization in the eyes of students and administrators.

The transition committee of the GUSA Senate—a group of lame-duck senators charged with overseeing the senate between the end of the spring semester and the fall elections—added two additional at-large seats to the body. Rather than creating additional representatives, the GUSA Senate should focus on ensuring that its elections actually validate their members’ senatorships.

The minimum-threshold vote on the Student Activity Fee Endowment Reform last year is an example of how GUSA could further legitimize its elections. In order for the vote on SAFE Reform to be valid there needed to be a minimum of 2,000 votes cast, regardless of whether the votes were in favor or against the reform.

The implementation of a minimum threshold for GUSA Senate elections would help to combat the problem of people turning the elections into a joke and writing in candidates who eventually win without even knowing that people are voting for them.

It is unreasonable to think that it would be possible to get most students to vote—and vote seriously—in a GUSA election, without reform. In the meantime, several members of the senate will continue to lack legitimacy for their positions.

So congratulations to those members of the newly elected GUSA Senate that were elected by a significant percentage of their constituents. Hopefully after some electoral reforms every member of the senate will deserve to be commended on their elections.

Make GUSA senators work for their votes with Geoffrey at

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Sam Ungar

“Although no one expects full participation in a GUSA election, having members elected to the senate with such a small number of votes continues to delegitimize the organization in the eyes of students and administrators.”

I must ask, Geoff: says who? I can say a number of things about my dealings with the administration in the various capacities I have held within the student association, but I wouldn’t say they see us as illegitimate. They certainly aren’t looking up the vote totals of the Senators they’re meeting with and then saying, “I don’t have to take you seriously because you only got nine percent of the votes in your district.” 

The fact is that the Election Commission only considers write-in winners who get at least five votes, which requires a fairly active write-in campaign. Should that threshold be higher? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you’re putting it here. I also don’t know how the SAFE-like threshold you posit would work in GUSA Senate elections – let’s say we set it at 15% of the district. If someone wins overwhelmingly with 13% of their district, and the loser wins 1%, well, because only 14% voted, the election’s invalid?

But this is only part of the problem I have with this argument.

This election was an incredibly proud moment for the Student Association, as it represents a third year of continual upswing of student interest and participation in our elections. I think we can finally call it a trend.

Geoff, here’s the question I would pose to you.

You are from St. Cloud, Minnesota. In 2005, there were 49,855 people (est.) of voting age in St. Cloud. 10,730 people voted in the general Council elections that year – a rate of about 21% of VAP, actually lower than the overall turnout you quote for our non at-large elections, which saw a rate closer to 30% of those eligible.

Was your Ward Council that year delegitimized by having a turnout rate lower than that of our GUSA elections, Geoff? One such Council member was elected with just 14% of the vote. What’s so magic about that extra 4% that makes that representative more legitimate than our new Senators?

All of this isn’t to say we can’t do better. We can, and we will. But I am tired, quite frankly, of the new form of GUSA bashing that has become apparent in certain sectors of campus media. The easy targets are gone – we’ve corrected the problems that have led to election fiascoes, we’ve reformed our procedures, and we’ve become more effective in funding allocation – but we’re still called illegitimate because we’re not getting better fast enough. 

Here, we’re called “illegitimate” because we haven’t passed reforms to get “most students to vote – and vote seriously.” By those standards, my friend, the United States Congress is one of many legislative bodies that falls into your illegitimacy category. Unless we implement mandatory voting, or voter registration, we’re not going to see a majority of people voting every time. And imagine the backlash from certain sectors if we tried to do something like that; it’s not on the table.

We realize we can be better, and we will be better. It would just be nice to see some of this incendiary rhetoric cool off. The 2011-12 Senate is not the 2008-09 Senate.


I remain, humbly yours,
Sam Ungar (COL ’12)
Senior Counselor to the Student Body President

P.S. There were 29 uncontested elections to the United States House of Representatives last year.