USAC’s history of slate dominance limits independents
Since the formation of a political student group coalition in the 1990s, the student body has seen the undergraduate student government elections consistently dominated by slate politics.
The pervasiveness of slates within the Undergraduate Students Association Council has taken effect over the past two decades, making it difficult for independent candidates to win contested elections. The last time an independent candidate served as USAC president was in 2000.
Three slates and one satirical slate are running candidates in this week’s election.
But USAC was not always this way. It was frequently dominated by one slate about two decades ago.
In 1994, a coalition of cultural and community-oriented student groups, including the Afrikan Student Union, Samahang Pilipino andMovimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or MEChA de UCLA, came together to form one of the longest recurring USAC slates, which they called Students First!.
The three organizations, along with six other “mother organizations,” have been involved in Students First! in various forms since its inception in 1994. Students First! eventually disbanded in 2012.
York Chang, the USAC president during the 1995-1996 academic year and a founding member of Students First!, said the slate was founded as a way for progressive students to come together and achieve their goals, including increasing access to education and providing financial resources to students.
“Political change takes time, and at the time we were so impatient and wanting so much to be the ones to see the change,” Chang said.
Students First! held a commanding majority of USAC seats through much of the 1990s and early 2000s. Multiple smaller slates formed to challenge the success of Students First!, but they achieved little electoral success, often disbanding soon after they were formed.
Bruins United, which first ran candidates in 2005, provided some lasting competition. The slate sought to better represent non-cultural and community organizations and increase funding for these groups, which consisted of pre-professional, political and Greek organizations, said Andy Green, a UCLA alumnus and co-founder of Bruins United.
Prior to 2004, USAC bylaws restricted councilmembers from allocating funds to overtly stated religious and political organizations.
Some attribute the rise of Bruins United in USAC beginning in 2005 and a change in USAC bylaws to the increase in funding for a larger number of student groups.
Karren Lane, the 2001-2002 USAC president, said that while various groups such as the Afrikan Student Union received a significant amount of funding, she thinks those allocations were necessary to support cultural programming. Lane was a member of Student Empowerment! – an offshoot of Students First! at the time.
Between 2005 and 2012, Bruins United and Students First!, under the guise of several different names, competed annually in the spring USAC election, often trading majorities from year to year.
In 2012, they chose not to officially run any candidates. A representative of Students First! told the Daily Bruin in 2012 that the slate disbanded because they “felt the need to use alternate methods to work with students.”
Newly formed slates
In last year’s election cycle, a new slate, composed of some of the same organizations that headed the Students First! coalition, emerged under the name LET’S ACT! with a focus on similar platforms, such as diversity and affordability.
Last year’s election also saw a new slate called Bruin Alliance, which ran two unsuccessful candidates for president and external vice president, respectively. One of the slate’s goals was to try and encourage students who are not actively engaged in USAC to become more involved.
Both Bruin Alliance candidates competed without the long-running voting bases that other slates and the presidential candidate, Taylor Bazley, ended up losing by a large margin.
“There are huge swaths of people on campus who have no pathway to get into student government because they’re not part of the slates,” said Bazley, a fourth-year political science student.
The slates running in this year’s election cycle include Bruins United, LET’S ACT and new slates FIRED UP! and ¡Bruin Satyrists!.
The elections are unusually contested, partially because the student groups that compose both LET’S ACT! and FIRED UP! have previously worked together under one slate name before disbanding for the most recent time this year.
Though the majority of the council has been dominated by slates throughout the years, various independent candidates have vied for positions within USAC.
In 2000, independent presidential candidate Elizabeth Houston defeated a candidate for Praxis – the name for Student’s First! slate at the time. Houston ended a five-year Praxis, or Students First!, hold on the USAC presidency.
On a council with eight members from the Praxis slate and five independents, Houston faced constant opposition at the council table from the Praxis majority.
This year, as in past years, multiple independents ran unopposed for the various USAC commissions.
For certain commissions, including Student Wellness commissioner and Community Service commissioner, slates often choose not to run a candidate. Some students think this reflects the intricate operations of a commission, as opposed to an officer position, which make handing down power to an in-office candidate more effective.
Savannah Badalich, the current Student Wellness commissioner, said she thinks independents are largely ignored by slated councilmembers until they are needed for programming or achieving certain political goals.
But some students say that independent candidates running for USAC offices outside of the commission system is futile because slates have a monopoly on those positions.
“Independent candidates can affect the other candidates running by getting their ideas out there and moving the dial a little bit, but at the end of the day they’re not going to be elected,” Bazley said.
‘A necessary evil’
Despite the frequent conflicts and divisive votes that come with slate politics, some students said that slates are necessary to reach and represent as many students as possible in the current USAC system.
Although current Bruins United Party Chair Joseph Hassine said he loves Bruins United, he thinks slate politics could be considered a “necessary evil” at times.
Green, the co-founder of Bruins United, cited Elizabeth Houston’s inability to form a large enough coalition to enact change during her term as USAC president from 2001 to 2002. However, he added that he thinks slates are an important vehicle for students to achieve their goals.
Badalich, an independent candidate running for Student Wellness commissioner in this week’s election, said she thinks slate politics can hurt the effectiveness of USAC and create an unwillingness from different councilmembers to cross party lines and work on projects with one another.
“I hate slate politics. I think it’s the worst thing to ever happen to USAC,” Badalich said.
Others say they think different slates can provide a greater diversity of opinion at the council table.
“If slates are for personal agendas, then it really does have more harm than good,” Chang said. “But if it’s for something much larger than the individual and is about a broader social issue, I think that kind of cohesion is really important.”