This week, and for the first time all semester, a resolution failed when brought to a vote on the Undergraduate Student Government Senate floor. The rejection of the resolution, which if passed would have added an external advocacy director position to USG, sent a clear and resounding message: Partisanship has no place in USG.
But, if this week’s senate vote is to act as more than just a symbolic gesture against partisanship, then it is time that USG works to amend its bylaws and Elections Code to truly take a stand against partisan interference in its elections.
Earlier this week, a Daily Trojan investigation revealed ties between USG President Austin Dunn and Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit that has been accused of meddling in student elections across the country. In documents reviewed by the Daily Trojan, both USC and Dunn’s name were listed in a donor-aimed brochure released by Turning Point.
Dunn was among the names of more than 50 other campus leaders nationwide whom the organization claimed to help win their elections. Dunn spoke to the Daily Trojan, saying that the group made contact with him during his successful 2016 bid for USG vice president. As the Daily Trojan report mentioned, nowhere in the Elections Code does it strictly outlaw outside, partisan influences, and it is this ambiguity that allows outside influences to gain a foothold in student governmental proceedings.
But this isn’t the purpose of USG. They should be about tackling the issues that exist on the USC campus and that are important to USC students. Of course, all students will possess their own political ideologies — and that’s something to be encouraged — but college is also the time for young people to explore and test their convictions. For student candidates to be beholden to partisan interests, driven by the money and influence in the outside political spheres, not only would be counterproductive to students’ testing of their own political views, but also would run contrary to the non-partisan commitment of USG.
Regardless of the extent to which a relationship between Dunn and Turning Point existed, the fact the conservative group initiated contact with Dunn and used USC and Dunn specifically in marketing materials, seems to run contrary to the staunchly non-partisan stance the governing body assumed this week.
Furthermore, the fact that USG should remain non-partisan is a common sentiment within the organization. During the course of the Daily Trojan’s investigation, nearly a dozen former or current USG officials stated that partisanship does not and should not have a place in student government. And yet, due to an ambiguous Elections Code, it can — and, at least to an extent in the case of Dunn — it has.
It is naive to believe that political groups will not take advantage of student governments or that outside endorsements have no bearing on the outcomes of elections or agendas set by those elected. This is essentially the stance USG has taken by leaving it unacknowledged in the Elections Code. Student leaders are the future leaders of the world. Gaining access to them through the societal microcosms that are university campuses is in political groups’ best interests. But it’s not in students’, the universities’ or student governments’.
Therefore, the USG Elections Code and bylaws should be amended to safeguard against election interference and partisan influences. It is not enough just to ban external donations, as the current Elections Code does. Accepting campaign help from partisan groups outside of the USC campus community should be outlawed as well. Or at the very least, the Elections Code should more clearly delineate how candidates should respond to and communicate with outside political organizations when — and it’s when, not if — they attempt to make contact with student candidates or elected officials again.
In the Daily Trojan report, Emily Lee, the former USG elections director and the author of the 2017-18 elections code, stated that the Elections team and third parties can bring forth allegations of illegal associations between a candidate and an outside political group, but once an official is elected, the investigation process is not as clear cut.
“Well that’s something that we have the press for, right?” Lee said.
To an extent this is true. But now, the onus is shifted back onto USG to implement meaningful reform to assure that a similar situation — or one more serious — does not happen again.
And that is something that only USG can do.
Daily Trojan spring 2018 Editorial Board