Reese: Abolish ASUU to Establish a New Kind of Student Democracy


Jose Alex Garcia

(Graphic by Jose Alex Garcia | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Isaac Reese, Opinion Writer


I recently listened to an episode of New York Times opinion writer and co-founder of Vox Ezra Klein’s podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show” where he talks with political scientist Hélène Landemore about her concept of an open democracy. I was struck by Landemore’s explanation of the kinds of people we elect to power in democratic systems. She points out that elections usually attract charismatic, somewhat narcissistic alpha-types to run for office. “Elections systematically close off access to power to people who are too shy, too ordinary, too weak-willed, too inarticulate,” she said.

This prevents much of the population from seeking elected government office, skewing the people who represent citizens in a democracy. Landemore argues that instead, we need an “open democracy” to create better outcomes in legislation and government generally. I agree.

An open democracy is a democratic system where all “political institutions [are centered] around the ‘open mini-public’ — a large, jury-like body of randomly selected citizens gathered to define laws and policies for the polity, in connection with the larger public.” I love Landemore’s idea — and I think this system could be applied to student governments as well as national ones. After all, ASUU follows the same format as the United States government, and most of those in ASUU exist within its social bubble, similar to how our elected congress members are often disconnected from the communities they represent. What if, instead, we abolished our current system and built a student government where every student has the same chance of participating as anyone else?

Landemore isn’t the only person researching new democratic systems and how to improve democracy. On Malcom Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History,” he talks with Adam Cronkright, the co-founder of a non-profit called Democracy in Practice that works with schools and students to create more democratic student governments across Bolivia, Canada, the United States and other countries. Cronkright highlights a school he worked with in Bolivia to test out what is called a “democratic lottery.” In their experiment, they allowed any student to participate in the lottery. They then put clay pots in the gym and filled them with fava beans, a local crop. There were 192 green fava beans and eight purple fava beans. The eight students who were lucky enough to draw one of the purple fava beans would be on student council for the year.

The Lottery

A lottery to decide who is in charge? The idea sounds undemocratic on the surface, since it’s based around pure chance. But as Landemore points out in that episode of “The Ezra Klein Show,” elections push out those without political charisma and limit our options for leadership to those who want power. In a lottery, though, everyone has the same potential to be in power.

Cronkright further explains that in this new student council in the Bolivian school, one member had a poor reputation with the faculty. They didn’t expect the student to fare well in a leadership position — but to their surprise, the student excelled in the role. Another outcome of this lottery-selected student council was the establishment of a library, something the school was missing. Students brought new perspectives and ideas to the table to meet the demands of the student body. The lottery system ultimately changed the mindset and goals of the council and led them to make changes previous councils never sought.

A lottery-based democracy could create a radical change in ASUU. It could even give students the potential to rewrite ASUU’s constitution and bylaws entirely. Currently, ASUU’s governing document is known as the Red Book. I couldn’t find the date that it was written and adopted by the student body, nor could I find the names of original drafters. Shouldn’t the governing document of ASUU be updated frequently for the needs of the student body?

On Klein’s podcast, he and Landemore also discuss Iceland’s 2010 constitutional rewrite. Iceland selected 950 citizens at random and gathered them one weekend to decide what ideals and values they wanted to see in a new constitution. The citizens, who were compensated for their time, deliberated their ideas in smaller groups where everyone had to voice their opinion at least once. Making sure everyone spoke for equal time prohibited any one person from dominating the conversation — Iceland recognized that just because someone talks the most or the loudest doesn’t necessarily mean they have the best ideas. These groups then discussed their ideals and values until each one came to a consensus on what to include in Iceland’s new constitution. The document was written based on these values, and two thirds of Iceland’s population voted to adopt it.

U students could rewrite the ASUU constitution and bylaws to reflect our current needs exactly like Iceland did. Random students could be selected via lottery to come up with a set of common ideals and values we want to uphold in a new government. The student body could then vote on the final product.

An Open Democracy for ASUU

To be clear, I don’t think we should abolish student elections entirely. The method we use to elect the ASUU executive branch works well enough. The most useful place to implement a lottery-based leadership system would be in the legislative branch. Mirroring the U.S. government, ASUU’s legislative branch has two bodies, the Assembly and the Senate. But there’s no reason to have two different legislative bodies in our student government — one unicameral student legislature would be sufficient. Instead, ASUU should combine its legislative bodies and select students semi-randomly to serve in student government, taking proportional representation into account. The sample of chosen students should reflect the proportions of gender, race, school and major found in the U’s population of over 33,000 students. The type of degree, such as bachelors, masters or doctorate, should also be accounted for. This sampling of students should occur every year during elections for the executive branch.

To incentivize participation and compensate these ASUU members for their time and effort, students who are selected should receive a partial tuition scholarship and a stipend. If a student does not want to participate for the year, another student could be selected at random. An opt-out system in CIS could also be implemented, so when the lottery occurs students who don’t want to be involved wouldn’t be in the population of possible student legislators.

It’s also worth noting that in my time at the U, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a fellow student who could tell me who represents their college in ASUU’s legislative branch — unless they were members of ASUU themselves. A lottery-based system would help increase student involvement in student government among the people whose ideas we might actually need most.

The same personality types we see elected to the halls of the District of Columbia, both good and bad, can be found in student governments like our own. I’m sure there are many members of ASUU who work hard to build a better and more inclusive campus, but ASUU races also attract many students who just want an extra line in their resume, networking opportunities or power, plain and simple. This skews our representation toward the extroverted and thoughtlessly ambitious end of the personality spectrum and makes our student government less democratic. Instead of having the same circle of people in charge of ASUU, students from all parts of campus and walks of life should have an equal chance of serving in this new kind of democracy. This would bring a larger breadth of experiences and ideas to student government and make ASUU better, more inclusive and more truly representative. We just have to get rid of the current student government structure to make it a reality.


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