The Undergraduate Students Association Council president is arguably one of the most privileged and influential student positions at UCLA, given its access, platform and resources.
The president, however, is limited in their power: They can only vote in the event of a tie on any council measure.
At first, I did not believe this to be an issue. I ran for USAC president with the intention of serving as a facilitator at the council table, working to ensure that all perspectives were afforded the same opportunity to be shared and heard by our council. I still hold that intention.
For years, students have said that USAC has been bogged down by politicking that has rendered it unresponsive and irrelevant. I had hoped – I think we all had hoped – that this year would be different. It hasn’t been so far.
It is for this reason that, rather than appealing to the good nature of those at the table, I have chosen to appeal to students to speak out against a problematic action taken by our council.
An amendment was proposed to the USAC Election Code on Aug. 31 – which governs how UCLA student government elections are run – to cut slate, or campus political group, campaign spending expenditures. Prior to this change, slates were afforded a spending allowance of an additional $200 for each candidate they ran. To balance this slate spending, independent candidates running against candidates on slates were allowed an additional $400 spending bonus.
The proposed change cut the additional slate spending expenditure while leaving in place the independent spending expenditure.
Our council spent weeks discussing this amendment before passing it Oct. 3 in a 9-2-2 vote. But it is important to note that our council is not a monolith: Council members Aaron Boudaie and Justin Jackson voted to oppose the amendment, and Malik Flournoy-Hooker and Kayla He abstained from voting.
I had no vote in the matter. I did, however, vocally oppose this action as an egregious overstep of the council’s power and a flagrant violation of students’ freedom of association.
As president, I always caution the council against violating or suspending our constitution, bylaws or guidelines. These policies are a means for our constituents to hold us accountable. As such, disregarding these documents – without urgent, expressed need – is, in effect, a signal to our constituents that their input and these mechanisms meant to ensure our accountability to them are not important to us.
Article 13 of the USAC Election Code explicitly states that amendments to the code “shall be presented to” USAC by the election board chair, the student who is appointed to administer USAC elections. Our office, however, has yet to appoint an election board chair. In spite of this, the council decided to proceed with complete disregard for historical precedent by unilaterally adopting this change, instead of waiting, as I recommended and as our election code demands, for an election board chair to vet and present amendments. And there was no reason for this urgent action, given we do not anticipate any USAC election before spring quarter.
This amendment also constitutes an affront to the First Amendment rights of a constituency of our student body. I expressed this concern Oct. 3 and it was confirmed by our UCLA Office of the Campus Counsel on Oct. 17. By setting different spending limits for candidates on the basis of their association or lack thereof, the council moved to effectively violate students’ freedom of association by providing a financial benefit for a certain type of political expression while taking away a financial benefit from another.
As was expressed by many of the slate-affiliated council members that night, the decision to run with a slate is often guided by the desire to run with like-minded students. As such, the decision to associate with a slate is a means of expression. By prejudicing it, we wrongfully infringe upon that right.
There will likely be some who will attribute my opposition to this change to the fact that I ran with the Bruins United slate last year. Let me be clear: I support the call for campaign finance reform. Socio-economic status should never deter any student from seeking elected office. I do not, however, support unilateral changes to the election code without an election board chair present. And I will never support actions that prejudice students’ ability to express their views.
Therefore, I call upon the Undergraduate Students Association Council to vote to nullify its Oct. 3 vote. The action was illegitimate and discriminatory.
If the council truly wishes to establish the precedent of fair and equitable spending in elections, it should work with the incoming election board chair to propose changes to the election code that set a standard spending limit for all candidates, irrespective of their affiliations. Freedom of association should not come at a cost. And USAC’s limited social capital should not be expended for the sake of political whim.
There is a lot of power the USAC president does have. But there is also a lot of power they do not. The greatest power of all, however, is their voice.
I hope you will listen to mine and amplify my call.
Mokhtarzadeh is the president of the 2017-2018 Undergraduate Students Association Council.