Although our federal government ground to a halt last weekend, it’s election season for USC’s Undergraduate Student Government. That means canvassing on Trousdale Parkway, even more crowded Facebook feeds and yes, possibly an In-N-Out truck in McCarthy Quad. But it also means low-voter turnout and a two-week exhibition of student apathy on display. Yet 2018 must represent an outlier for student turnout and engagement if USC students hope to harness the political energy of 2017.
As the Co-Director of the Service Student Assembly, I’m fairly well-acquainted with USG’s election routine. Candidates announce their bids on Jan. 25, and what follows in the next two weeks is a flurry of campaigning, as undergraduates solicit votes through social media, yard signs, stickers and quasi-desperate attempts at conversation in the quad. Up for election lies our presidential and vice presidential candidates running on a ticket, and the offices of 12 senators, who serve as a check and balance while also promoting advocacy initiatives.
Few dispute that USC as a whole remains politically apathetic. After all, on the college prep website Niche, in response to the question “What political party do you associate yourself with?” the second highest response for USC students was “I don’t care about politics.” Therefore, it’s not surprising that these crumbs of activism and engagement hardly trickle down to student government elections, with only 5,411 students voting last year out of an undergraduate student body population of 19,000 students. And that turnout constituted a 46.2 percent increase from the previous year.
While limited engagement and activism on campus reflects a misguided belief that students can remain insulated from local, state and federal policies, there’s little reason for students to sit on the sidelines on election day. With Sustainability 2020 goals imminent, marginalized populations such as DACA students at risk, an escalating mental health crisis, rising housing costs, a lack of affordable food, ongoing diversity discourse, concerns of inclusion and questions of community engagement, the stakes appear higher than a mere popularity contest.
False narratives often dictate the discourse surrounding campus policies. Some perceive USG as powerless, but its budget of $2.3 million dollars, staff of over 100 students and various projects, events and initiatives tell a different story. Others write USG off as ineffective, but a cost-free Uber program (now Lyft), Smoke-Free Campus Resolution and Campus Climate resolution show this could not be further from the truth.
The next few weeks remain pivotal for campus change and policy not only for the next year, but also for the future, with a new set of students ready to assume the mantle of leadership. But as with any election, an uneducated vote is a wasted vote. Students must not fall into complacency and disengagement because voting for the first names on the ballot or for one’s friends represents passive and incomplete engagement. Platforms and experience represent values, and students must wisely research whom they select to lead their university.
As with politics outside the bounds of campus, engagement hardly ends with election day. All students hold a stake in campus policies, whether through Greek life restructuring, diversity initiatives or food and housing insecurity. Therefore, it remains our responsibility to press for advocacy and change, to push ourselves to become more educated and aware, join and create clubs and initiatives and engage in our campus community and well-being. Anyone and everyone can and should propose advocacy resolutions, attend open USG Senate meetings, apply to different boards and assemblies, schedule meetings with administrators and faculty, research the work of other universities and their policies and keep up with campus news.
With accessible polling stations and no gerrymandering or restrictive voter ID laws, only apathy stands in the way of students and entry level political engagement. Low voter turnout need not be a foregone conclusion; as a campus, we must resolve to make 2018 a new year of involvement and activism. All it takes is a minute of your time, and perhaps an In-N-Out burger in exchange.
Alec Vandenberg is a sophomore majoring in public policy. His column,“It Takes a Village,” runs every other Monday.