Candidate count: As the number of SGB candidates dwindles, students are left without a choice

Emily Hower | Layout Editor

For the third year in a row, Student Government Board elections aren’t much of a competition.

Tuesday’s ballot will show only eight candidates running for eight Board seats and two candidates vying for the presidential seat.

The last year more than 10 candidates ran for Board positions was 2012, when 16 students ran. The number of candidates competing for seats has fallen since then, meaning student voters don’t have much of a choice while filling out ballots.

According to Mike Nites, 2014 SGB president, changes in SGB’s elections code may have pushed the decline, but today’s Board members attribute the decrease to the time-consuming nature of campaigning.

In 2013, 10 candidates campaigned for Board seats, and one person — Nites — ran for the president’s seat. In 2014, 10 candidates campaigned for Board seats while three candidates competed for the president’s seat. The current Board has kept their positions since Nov. 11, 2014 after a referendum passed in October of that year that changed the SGB term from a calendar year to the academic school year.

Until this year, the elections code permitted candidates to campaign with a slate — a group of students that run on the same platform — consisting of up to three people. Slates often unofficially affiliated with one another to form larger partnerships of five Board members and one presidential candidate, referred to as “mega-slates.”

In 2012, the Board changed the Elections Code to allow candidates to publicly announce endorsements and affiliations, which Nites said was an “attempt to level the playing field.” He said this policy change might have caused a decrease in the number of president-affiliated Board candidates.

“With just a few years of data to look at, it seems like the number of candidates not affiliated with a presidential candidate has remained about the same,” Nites said in an email. “But the number of candidates that are affiliated with a presidential candidate have dropped off because of the change.”

When voting for candidates, students were previously allowed five votes, meaning it was possible for two affiliated slates to have more than half of the votes on the Board.

In 2013, following a request from student leaders, the Board passed a referendum decreasing the number of votes a student can cast in an election from five to three. Since then, according to Nites, presidential candidates began running with a slate of three other candidates. 

“These changes were made because the student body voiced its opinion that no mega-slate should be able to have control over the majority of the Board,” Nites said. “And independent candidates and slates unaffiliated with a presidential candidate should have a fair shot at the election.”

Nites said if two slates run each term with three candidates and a few independent candidates run, the numbers will add up to about 10 to 12 candidates.

Although 2013 legislation led to smaller slates, the Elections Committee passed a referendum in January 2016 to permit slates to run with four candidates, as long as one member is a presidential candidate.

This year, two slates — the Keystone Slate and the Incline Slate — have three Board candidates and one presidential candidate. Alyssa Laguerta and Rohit Anand make up the H.A.T.S. Slate, which does not have a presidential affiliate. 

Though the competition was just as thin in 2013 as it is in 2016, it wasn’t always a bloodless battle.

In the 2013 election, the president-elect, Gordon Louderback, along with five other Board members, was a part of the Druids, a society of active students on campus whose members have kept their identities a secret since the mid-1990s.

Around the time of the election in 2013, former Druid members told The Pitt News they were concerned the group was becoming too political.

Aaron Gish, elections chair during the 2013 campaigns, told The Pitt News in 2013 that the political implications of the group led to an unfair election season and filed infractions against the Druid-affiliated candidates.

“When I took the position I was given the advice to expect that everyone in SGB has an ulterior motive,” Gish said in an email on Sunday. “While I thought that was rather over-the-top advice and certainly didn’t think it applied to nearly everybody in the office, I can say that the problem of politicking was quite real and was not confined to any one group of people in SGB.”

Gish said he can’t pinpoint the reason for the recent lack of interest in running for SGB, but said, in his time at Pitt, students showed the least interest in the 2013 election. In 2013, only 13.7 pecent of students voted in the election, a 54 percent drop from 2012.

“I think it would be unfair to attribute [low interest] to any one person or group, but certainly any ‘scandal’ doesn’t help,” Gish said.

Celia Millard, chair of SGB’s Elections Committee, said she was not familiar with the Druids involvement in the 2013 election.

In an email, Millard said that she was initially worried about the low competition.

“We [worried] that with fewer candidates, there won’t be active campaigning and excitement about voting,” Millard said. “We want the student body to get excited and as involved as possible to ensure a large voter turnout and overall increased awareness of SGB.”

Though 23 students showed interest in running for Board, Millard said only 10 people completed the application. Millard said in an email that 13people did not turn in their applications, which she attributed in part to the signature requirement — Board candidates must acquire 200, while presidential candidates must acquire 250 — and the fact that many of the applicants were first-year students.

Despite her concerns about the signature requirement, Millar said SGB has not discussed the possibility of changing the application.

“It’s there because that’s what candidates have to do in real elections, and we want to make sure that a large number of students on this campus are confident in signing their name to say that a person should run for SGB,” Millard said.

She said she reached out to all the applicants multiple times with campaigning information, but to no avail.

A larger barrier for applicants is the lack of information about SGB’s goals and actions on campus, according to Millard.

“I think once the student body starts to become more aware and passionate about the changes that SGB can make on this campus, they won’t let signatures deter them from becoming a part of it,” Millard said.

Once the campaigning began, Millard said her concerns about interest levels dissipated.

“We may not have many people running, but the people who do run are very passionate, and that passion is contagious to all different kinds of students and student organizations across campus who believe in these candidates and their goals,” Millard said.

The Elections Committee requires students running for SGB to collect 200 signatures from undergraduate non-CGS students, and those running for the president need to collect 250 signatures. Candidates fill out an online application with basic information and their initiatives, which the elections committee reviews.

Candidates must have a minimum GPA of 2.75.

According to SGB president Nasreen Harun, the application process for SGB isn’t difficult, but the campaign process is demanding.

“I don’t think you’re ever fully prepared until you’re in it, but I had seen at least two elections and I understood what was coming,” Harun said.

When Nites ran for a SGB Board position in 2012, he said he spent between five and six hours a day speaking with student organizations in the month before the election.

“Although the amount of time [spent campaigning] varies from year to year depending on the competition, it definitely does take a commitment,” Nites said.

Board member Lia Petrose said in an email the time commitment required for a Board position may discourage students from campaigning for a seat.

“Because it requires meeting with so many student groups, I would say the biggest challenge for anyone running is the sheer time commitment during election season, and even beyond,” Petrose said.

Outside of the time commitment, Petrose said it can also be difficult to campaign without any prior SGB experience or pre-existing relationships within SGB, which candidates can use to form a slate. 

“Election season is challenging but it is especially challenging to accomplish alone,” Petrose said. “If students are already involved with SGB, they are likely to know and have relationships with other people who are thinking of running.”

This year, no independent candidates are running for a SGB position.

“Most of the people who run do have previous SGB experience, which I don’t think is a bad thing,” Millard said. “Being on Board is a huge responsibility and time commitment. The people who have previous experience on SGB and decide to run know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.”

Although five candidates this year are already involved in SGB, Harun said that doesn’t mean they will not have a Board with members of diverse backgrounds and experience.

This year, three of the eight Board candidates are involved with SGB, and both presidential candidates sat on the Board this past year. The non-SGB candidates have leadership experience with student organizations.

“The unique thing about SGB is people come from being involved in so many different organizations, like Greek life, Res life and SAGs,” Harun said. “I think each person does bring a unique perspective.”

Harun said SGB experience does help candidates, but for candidates already on the Board, campaigning on top of Board duties can be difficult.

Once elected, Board members have a required minimum of 10 office hours per week and attend a weekly public meeting and a weekly planning session. They work on the initiatives students bring to their attention and are expected to attend school events, including the Panther Leadership Summit and Pitt Day in Harrisburg.   

“For the SGB president’s position I think it’s critical to have SGB experience, but for Board position I think if you have the passion and desire to make a change and you care about Pitt it’s a good position for you,” Harun said.

Steve Anderson, associate dean and director of Residence Life, said in an email that SGB still garners some interest among students, but running for a position can be intimidating.

“When students learn who is running, they might not feel that their qualifications are competitive with those other candidates,” Anderson said.

Both in the campaign season and the rest of the academic year, Millard said the current Board is working to increase transparency of the Board for students.

“Not many students on campus know what SGB is and what we do,” Millard said. “We want to work to market ourselves in ways that not only increases our visibility on campus, but also makes us more accessible to students who may be unfamiliar with us.”

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