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Student Government: Voter apathy may be linked to lack of political parties

USF students seem to be passionate about many things: athletics, the environment and the upcoming presidential election. This passion doesn’t appear to translate to Student Government, however, when comparing the number of voting students with student government elections of other Florida universities, such as the University of Florida (UF) and Florida State University (FSU).

All three universities have about the same number of students, but not the same voter turnout when it comes to student government elections. Some say this might be because, as opposed to USF, UF and FSU have an established party system.

“Students are only going to get involved with things they are interested in,” said Interim Chair of Psychology Michael Brannick. “We are still very much of a commuter school and maybe some students don’t feel like SG will affect their lives and that their voice won’t be heard.”

Last fall, UF had an all-time high in voter turnout, as 10,500 voters went to the polls to vote for their next student government president, Kevin Reilly. Then, 8,500 voted for senators in the spring.

At FSU, 2,900 people voted for senate representatives in fall 2007. That number nearly doubled in the spring when it came time to elect a new president, as 5,280 students voted for Laymon A. Hicks.

Meanwhile, USF SG Administrative Assistant Judy Pollock said 5,500 Bulls voted for SG president in the spring, slightly surpassing FSU in turnout, but only hundreds of students vote in the monthly senate elections — far behind UF and FSU.

At UF, the Gators have two major parties, the Gator and the Orange and Blue. The Gator Party holds the majority with 66 people in the senate, compared to 15 for the Orange and Blue, and Reilly is a member of the Gator party. Two senate members are independent.

“We have party systems, but students can run on their own. The party system is the more prevalent one,” Reilly said.

Reilly said belonging to a specific party helps when it comes to campaigning and sending a message out to students, especially on large campuses.

“A group of people can accomplish a lot more than a single person could,” he said.

At FSU, the American and State parties vie for the majority. Hicks said he believes that belonging to a party is beneficial.

“When you run with a party, you have multiple people from all over campus campaigning to different demographics. If I had run as an individual, I wouldn’t have been able to reach all those demographics,” he said.

In 2005, SG Director of Community Outreach Michael Johnson tried to start the Ethos party at USF. Though the Oracle reported that the organization had about 1,000 members in 2006, former SG member Billy Schmidt said the party never caught on with students.

“They tried to unite the Greek voting block,” he said. “It was largely unsuccessful because even though he was trying to unite a bunch of Greeks through Greek Village, it didn’t really work.”

Some USF students said they think their peers vote for their friends and not on the issues — making it hard to get interested in SG elections.

Barrington Morgan, an engineering major, said the main problem USF has is that students lean toward a specific demographic — such as a fraternity brother or a close friend — regardless of whether the student agrees with the candidate’s philosophy.

“Student Government elections are pretty much a popularity contest,” he said.

Morgan voted during his first two years at USF, but said outside obligations have prevented him from doing so in the last two years.

McKara Calhoon, a USF senior and University of North Florida (UNF) transfer, said she saw great involvement in student government by UNF students once they joined one of the two university parties, Grey and Silver.

“After elections, both parties worked together, but before then, having two clear sides would allow people to know where they stand,” she said.

Calhoon said USF should have a Green and Gold party system to boost student involvement.

Assistant Professor of Government and International Affairs Eunjung Choi agreed. She said USF’s SG should make its purpose and ideas clearer to students by proposing two clear alternatives for students to support.

Student Government Director Gary Manka, however, doesn’t agree with either statement. He said a two-party system doesn’t always provide more possibilities than an independent system.

“It can definitely be limiting in scope. After all, the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian national party system hasn’t exactly been a perfect one, has it?” Manka said.

By the numbers:

Number of people who voted in each university’s student government presidential election:

5,280 — Florida State University
5,500 — USF
10,500 — University of Florida