UF elections mark progress against Blue Key system
Although Vision '97 presidential candidate Greg Cook lost the runoff election, this year's spring Student Government elections showed that independent-minded people on campus are making some progress in ending the 70-year one-party system that has controlled our SG through the hidden hand of Florida Blue Key. Action candidate Chris Dorworth won by anywhere from 88 to 186 votes (depending on who you ask), a fairly slim margin. Last year, Equity treasurer Joseph Stadlen won by only 36 votes. More significantly, Vision won 13 seats in the Senate, and between them and the 7 Alliance party senators, independents now control 25%, which is a sizeable minority. It's clear that the Florida Blue Key can no longer win the elections without any significant opposition; their hegemony is eroding.
In the general election, there were four parties: Vision and Action had full senate slates, and two other parties, the Naked Party (which was notable for their lack of party T-shirts... or any clothing in general... and their slogan "vote naked!") and the Nameless Party, which claimed to be running against partisan politics in general, ran executive slates (president, VP, treasurer) only. The runoff for the executive was between Vision and Action, with Naked endorsing Vision and Nameless for some 'unnameable' reason supporting Action. Another curious twist was the Alligator giving their endorsement to the FBK/Greek/"status quo" party... Action, which they haven't done before in recent memory.
For the first time, Action also deliberately sought out the votes of graduate students, using as their representative Graduate Student Affairs Cabinet director Clay Scherer. Clay sent out a memo to representatives of the Graduate Student Council suggesting that if they could "deliver" 2,000 votes to Action, then the GSC would get more money during the "Big Eight" budget process. Unfortunately, many grad students did not realize that this is the way Blue Key has always worked: rewarding organizations that support it, penalizing ones that do not. I sent out a response to Clay's letter, telling grad students they shouldn't vote based on empty promises and deals.
Action leaders who had voted down a bill for direct grad student representation last year were now offering to give grad students three seats in the Senate -- by taking away three from smaller colleges such as accounting where grad students already have a (limited) voice. The Vision plan was far better: it offered eight seats for the Graduate School for the simple reason that, with 8000 grad students, UF was entitled to 8 grad student seats. I did my best to tell grad students not to buy into the status quo that Clay was asking them to accept: they wouldn't get anything from it other than cynical manipulation. Vision didn't want to "buy" their votes, but it could use their support.
This year's election process, as usual, was complicated by the typical shenanigans of the powers-that-be. From the beginning, Charlie Grapski and other Vision leaders tried to ensure that 13 polling locations would be open on both days of the elections. The Elections Commission, controlled by those powers, had no interest in that. They knew that if more polling locations were open, there would be a higher turnout. And a higher turnout would hurt them because the FBK party always relies on a base of 3-4,000 students in fraternities and sororities... and freshmen and other people who can easily have the wool pulled over their eyes.
The commission agreed with the letter of Grapski's request, opting for "unified polling," but violated the spirit of it by suggesting that only 5-7 locations would be open both days. So Grapski took this to UF's "Supreme Court" and brought it before the Board of Masters. The BOM agreed that the commission was not acting properly, and placed an injunction on the elections. Despite this injunction, the commission failed to notify pollworkers on Tuesday March 25th that the elections were not being held. So 800 people went ahead and voted and later found out that their votes were nullified. It didn't help that the Alligator printed a headline saying "elections cancelled - maybe?"
Vision had asked to move the elections to the following Tuesday and Wednesday of the next week. That request was not honored. But the commission finally complied by holding elections the following day (Wednesday the 26th) and Thursday, with 13 polling locations open on those days. It did not give Vision the additional campaign time they had wanted, but at least finally people would have an opportunity to vote in their own colleges rather than walking across campus.
Both Action, the Alligator, and even the Nameless party accused Vision of political gamesmanship. They suggested that it was a bad thing that Vision was asking for additional campaigning time. But if U.S. national campaigns are too long, it's definitely the case that U.F. student campaigns are far too short. All the parties basically had one week from the time students came back from Spring Break to the date of elections. There was only one officially Alligator-sponsored debate between the presidential candidates, and the Alligator barely advertised it, or covered the issues that were discussed! The only people that benefit from a super-short campaign are incumbents, who have all the advantages, as the incumbents well knew.
The bottom line is that Vision did not want to nullify the votes of people who voted on the 25th. Those people should have been told elections were cancelled. The pollworkers should have been sent home in the morning. Then it wouldn't have costed the students a dime. All we wanted to do was give a larger percentage of the student body a chance to participate in the process. We didn't want to have to do it at the last minute, but unfortunately, UF's Board of Masters doesn't meet every night of the week. It did meet the night before the elections. And while Greg Cook's fraternity brother is on the BOM, he did offer to recuse himself from the vote, which passed 3-0 in any case.
The true political gamesmanship, as usual, came from the Elections Commission and Blue Key, who wanted as few people to vote as possible. And it worked. Despite 13 polling locations open both days, fewer people (6000) came out to vote in the general election than last year's high record-setting tally of 7000 voters. This could have been due to many factors. Many were angry over having their votes nullified on Tuesday and refused to come back to the polls. Other people chose not to vote at all, because the Alligator and others helped fuel their "cynicism" over the "games" that the "Vision party was playing".
Still, the people who did vote were highly committed, because almost the exact same numbers of people came back to vote in the runoff. This was unlike last year, where only 5000 people voted in the runoff between Alliance and Equity. There are large numbers of groups--grad students, international students, non-traditional students, minority students--which are clearly still feeling excluded from the process. And the most active voting bloc remains Greeks in fraternities and sororities mobilized by Florida Blue Key--although many Greeks like Greg are starting to want out of that system and are joining with independents to put an end to it. As Vision members often told people, the problem was not Greeks vs. independents; it was independent-minded people vs. a dominating Florida Blue Key system.
The bottom line is that one massive voting bloc is still going unheard: those 34,000 students who aren't going to the polls even to cast a single write-in vote. Through a combination of alienation, apathy, frustration, and a system dedicated to their willful ignorance, these people just aren't voting. And it's unfortunate because if they just showed up they could shut the Blue Key system down. However, Blue Key relies on their non-participation, and thus in the future will probably continue to do what it can to minimize awareness of the elections, make it more difficult for people to run or form parties, limit discussion and debate on the problems of the system, and threaten Greeks and student organizations that break ranks with loss of funding and other sanctions.
The Gainesville Sun suggested that this is a conspiracy theory. However, off the public record, Blue Key leaders have confirmed it numerous times. Many prominent Florida politicians, including Lawton Chiles, came out of the Blue Key system. They like the status quo. They want UF's SG to remain a privileged preserve where certain elite students in certain fraternities and sororities build their resumes, make connections, and acquire experience in manipulating voters, so that they can go on to run for state government. If it's a conspiracy theory, why have the same people in the same party (even though it keeps changing its name) controlled UF's SG for 70 years? That's not democracy, it's a one-party state... a dictatorship.
The Alligator chided Vision Party for focusing too much on "one small election," but the system cannot be fixed without winning an election first. The replacement (RNA) process guarantees that the majority party also makes all the appointments of senators throughout the year. So there's simply no way to get change-minded people into the system. The system can't be fixed until people who want to change the system become the majority. And it looks to me like independents are getting there - at long last. It may even happen before Charlie and I get our degrees.
Many times people tell me that wasting my time on student government is not worth the effort. However, it is important. Aside from the fact that it controls $7 million of A & S fees (although Rep. Grant in the legislature may put an end to that - in the wrong way, which is another discussion altogether) SG is where students could learn how to begin responsible careers in future public service. But what are they learning instead? How to run political machines, curry influence, make back-room deals, and exclude people from participation. And we wonder why our state government is the way that it is now. I can only hope that the waning strength of Blue Key is in permanent decline, and that this system is going down soon.
I would like to urge any UF students reading the Iguana who are non-voters to participate. The Vision party was not a perfect ideal; it was basically a merger/coalition of independents from last year's Cash Back for Students and Alliance parties, with Greeks and others in the newly formed Vision party who wanted to make a change. But it wasn't true that "Vision = Action," and it was irrelevant that Greg had applied to Blue Key. He came to realize what they were really all about, and turned against them. No party is ever perfect, but people need to support parties that will fight for change. Vision will probably be looking for senators in the Fall to run, and unlike the other party, we're open to anyone who wants to run.
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