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The student body president does not matter

| Thursday, February 20, 2020

I love democracy. I have voted in the state and federal elections every year since I turned 18, dutifully mailing an absentee ballot back to Onondaga County from my home under the Dome. I encourage (some may say harass) fellow students to vote, regardless of political ideology, going so far as to download VoteWithMe last election season so I could remind close friends to register to vote. Voting is a sacred right in the United States and it’s not a responsibility I take lightly. 

At Notre Dame, democracy feels fundamentally broken, and I am not referring to Democrats or Republicans. Our student elections are a disaster every year. The 2020 elections are the fourth set of elections I have witnessed as a student. This year, like every year, there were opaque sanctions issued by the Judicial Council. The Ingal-Galbenski ticket had to spend 24 hours without campaigning online. The Dugan-Pozas ticket forfeited 26 votes. Why 26? We will never know for sure, as the Judicial Council keeps its rulings confidential. Finally, the Mercugliano-Lund ticket had to suspend its candidacy in its entirety for “highly unethical behavior.” The previous year was slightly better, in that no presidential candidates were sanctioned. However, one of the tickets for Sophomore Class Council in 2019 forfeited a seemingly arbitrary 33 votes. My sophomore and freshman years were more on-brand for Notre Dame, with McGavick-Gayheart (the eventual winners) being docked 12% of the vote in 2018 after a Judicial Council sanction. The Kruszewski-Dunbar ticket was also docked votes, although they escaped with only 10% of their votes lost. Finally, my first Notre Dame election experience in 2017 culminated in delayed results as the Fonseca-Narimatu ticket contested a sanction costing them 7% of their votes.

What do all of these sanctions have in common? They are confusing and seemingly arbitrary. Campaign spending issues are worth 7% of the vote, but misusing a listserv is only worth 33 individual votes. In what has become a recurring theme in my columns, I urge my fellow Notre Dame students to demand greater transparency. Unlike in past columns, I am calling on my fellow students, not the administration, to deliver this openness. The students tasked with running our elections play an important role in shaping how an entire year on this campus plays out. The candidates who take the time to run for office and the students who support them deserve to know more about where these sanctions come from and how they are decided.

I fear, however, that there is a greater problem underlying the student elections on campus, and that is that the actual winners of the election are of minimal consequence to the Notre Dame student body. Of course, for the candidates, winning the election is an incredible achievement. They should be proud of their work and the reputation they have developed among their peers. But their actual ability to accomplish anything once in office is questionable at best. I feel as though this is by design. The University would rather have student leaders boxed into roles without power than give our most inspiring and well-spoken students a real platform.

To test my belief, I looked at the key parts of the platforms of the last three student body presidents as outlined in the annual Observer feature on each ticket. For president Elizabeth Boyle, her biggest priorities included amnesty for parietals violations if a Title IX violation occurs, reform of the University’s non-discrimination clause and implementing Callisto 2.0, a digital platform to report sexual assaults. The non-discrimination clause still does not protect LGBT students or faculty. Parietals amnesty is not an option in any situation. I could find no evidence of Callisto 2.0 being implemented on campus. In fact, the president Becca Blais listed implementation of the original Callisto as a priority in 2017. 

The 2018-2019 president, Gates McGavick, wanted to reform the student senate, repeal the three-year housing mandate and expand Notre Dame’s blue light system. The closest thing I could find for student senate reforms were financial oversight reforms, which happened after Boyle had taken office. The housing mandate looms as large and unpopular as ever. Notre Dame Police Chief Keri Kei Shibata classified the blue light system as not being seen as that “important of a safety feature” in December of 2018.

I already touched on one of Blais’ priorities, which was the Callisto sexual assault reporting software. It was not implemented. I can find no evidence of a Diversity and Inclusion Officer tasked specifically with student issues being hired. Pamela Nolan Young, director for academic diversity and inclusion, has worked at Notre Dame since 2016, and Eric Love, the director of staff diversity and inclusion, was cited in the Blais-Shewitt ticket’s platform in the first place. Finally, Blais hoped to make all buildings on campus handicap accessible. I challenge any reader with a twisted ankle, let alone a wheelchair user, to attempt to get to the second floor of Alumni Hall and report back to me about how handicap-accessible some buildings are.

Most of these platform tenets were great ideas. Campus should be accessible to all. The housing mandate is not something the student body wants. A digital platform to report incidents of sexual assault seems like a powerful tool. But clearly Notre Dame has no intention of letting the student body leaders do their job and lead. This unfortunate reality is why I say the elections do not ultimately matter. The winners are going to have great ideas for how to improve campus. The losing ticket will probably have some clever suggestions, as well. As in years past, none of these campaign pitches will come to fruition. Our student government’s contributions to the student body will consist of free snacks on random Sundays in Duncan Student Center, a shuttle to the South Bend Airport before school breaks (but no longer a bus to Saint Mary’s), and a screening of the movie “Rudy” in the football stadium in August. In 2021, more tickets will run, some of which will be arbitrarily sanctioned. The cycle will continue. So whether this week brings us Ingal or Patidar, I implore our next leader to be different. Break the cycle. Challenge the administration. You will be one of the most powerful students on campus. Use this power to advocate for real change, not free berries during finals week.

Ben Testani is a senior studying international economics, Arabic and Spanish. He comes to Notre Dame via Central New York and while currently residing off-campus, will always be a proud Alumni Dawg. He welcomes feedback at [email protected] or @BenTestani on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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