Last Thursday’s Georgetown University Student Association referendums were marked by a constitutional suit filed against members of GUSA’s leadership amid allegations of bribery, electioneering and manning illegal polling stations. Students campaigning against the referendum argued representatives from GUSA attempted to influence voters by offering food at polling stations, along with an excessive number of “yes” campaign posters at stations and placing certain polling tables outside of designated zones.
In light of these complaints, it is easy to overlook the positive signs that arose from the election. The smoke-free campus and GUSA senate reform referendums saw election turnout reach 41 percent — well over the 25 percent threshold necessary for both referendums to be binding.
Given these different results and issues from the referendum, there are two main takeaways GUSA should keep in mind. First, Georgetown needs more referendums to bolster engagement with student government, and just as importantly, GUSA must maintain neutrality in these elections to ensure a fully democratic process.
This editorial board believes GUSA needs to resolve the current ambiguity of its bylaws toward neutrality, and officially bar itself from endorsing one side in a referendum vote. While individual senators should be allowed to promote their own initiatives, institution-wide endorsements have the capacity to unduly skew the results of an election. The current absence of regulations surrounding this is concerning, and must be addressed by GUSA’s leadership.
Referendums often provide the only engagement most students have with GUSA’s policies. Compared to the relatively high turnout rate for the referendum, only 5.63 percent of students voted in last spring’s GUSA Senate elections. As evidenced by the high turnout rate and popularity of social media campaigns during the referendum, students are demonstrably eager when given the opportunity to voice their input on policy issues that affect them.
On a fundamental level, referendums have the ability to connect GUSA with its constituents. They keep the organization accountable to the student body’s attitudes toward matters such as divestment from fossil fuels, pre-registration and most recently, smoking on campus. Most importantly, referendums extend decision-making to a broader segment of the student body beyond GUSA policy teams and senators, assuring that a diversity of thought and background is honored when determining policy.
However, when GUSA chooses sides in these referendums, which occurred last week when leaders from both branches endorsed the senate restructuring plan, the vote plunges into ethically dubious territory. Already, there are stories of students swayed by the disproportionate number of “Yes” posters at polling stations, and although GUSA’s bylaws are notably silent on maintaining neutrality during referendums, the situation definitely presented the appearance of a conflict of interest.
There is a clear hypocrisy when student government asks for its constituents’ opinion while some GUSA representatives simultaneously tell students what and how to think. A referendum ought to serve as a genuine inquiry of the student body to gauge its positions on different issues, not as a political tool for student government insiders to reinforce a preconceived policy agenda.
In creating and presenting its senate restructuring plan, GUSA already performed a tacit endorsement. To GUSA’s credit, the organization showcased transparency in calling the endorsement to an explicit senate vote. But the organization’s overt campaigning in favor of the restructuring initiative subverts the fundamental purpose of a referendum — to hear what students have to say, and actually listen.
GUSA has the opportunity to raise student engagement and check its own power. This editorial board calls GUSA to plan more referendums in the future, but at the same time, abstain from injecting itself into voters’ decision-making during the process. Perhaps new clauses in the GUSA bylaws should stipulate measures to prevent incidents in the future in order to maintain the fairness of any vote. If GUSA can prevent such mistakes from occurring in the future, only then can campus advocacy truly represent the interests of its student body.