“In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve” – Alexis de Tocqueville.

Many UF students are not aware of the power Student Government has to shape their campus experience. This isn’t high school, where they simply plan cute parties. UF’s SG is modeled off the state constitution and controls a $14 million budget. (For a complete list of SG’s powers, visit dev.thefineprintuf.org/sg.)

Such a large sum of money could have some serious impact. SG is in a position to provide a voice for the students, to challenge the administration, improve the campus life and to provide a forum for vibrant debate about the inner workings of the school’s activities and potential platforms.

In reality, however, it seldom works that way. Most students don’t ever get a glimpse of, much less a say in, the endeavors of SG. The reason? They think it doesn’t matter. They opt not to get involved. Most of them don’t even vote.

In the last 10 years, the turnout rate in SG elections has barely ever reached more than 20 percent. In the fall of 2009, only 17 percent of students voted, and in 2002, the number was as low as 6.4 percent. Not even one-fifth of the student population gets out and votes. That’s roughly 40,000 voices unaccounted for.

When no one pays attention, nothing changes. Because nothing changes, no one sees any reason to pay attention. The result is the stagnation of the representative body for students.

When turnout is that low, winning elections is easy. A large enough group of people who’ve sworn loyalty oaths to one another, can quickly cobble together the few thousand votes necessary to win. There is a common perception that the Greeks control SG, and this is why.

Other cliques have come to play the game, too. And so fraternities and sororities, along with a handful of other groups, including many of the ethnic-student organizations, have come to dominate campus politics and activities. They’re used to winning elections, and divvying up the spoils. Their members swap cabinet positions for homecoming pairings and Student Senate seats for spots on the committee that plans Gator Growl.

Back scratching and back-room deals make it difficult to break through the corrupt politics and bring about fresh ideas. SG’s “legacy positions-” campus leadership roles traditionally controlled by a certain Greek house or other organization – are one clear example of how this system works. According to the Independent Student Foundation (a group working to end this system of patronage), these traditions are hard to break. “For example, a huge number (over 80 percent) of ACCENT Chairs over the last 20 years have been members of Alpha Epsilon Pi.”

Behind the scenes, this system revolves around Florida Blue Key, a leadership honorary society with lots of members in influential positions in big-time Florida politics (though its grip on state government has been receding recently). People in SG seek FBK honors, which they believe will help them launch their political careers. As a result, they spend lots of energy trying to build support among a network of good-ole-boys (which in recent decades has come to include a few girls).

That makes them unlikely to challenge the status quo. It also explains why they don’t support policies like online voting, which would loosen the grip of the political machine by making it easier for students who aren’t being dragged to the polls by their brothers, sisters or organization leaders to participate.

In recent years, students have helped challenge the university to become a better place. Student government helped the university to partner with the City of Gainesville to expand bus service on campus and pushed a ballot initiative in which students voted to help fund the program. As a result, students can take advantage of local public transportation for free.

Student Government does fund and can fund other valuable services such as Student Legal Services, RecSports, Gator Nights, free bike repair, ACCENT speakers, the bus transportation services and SNAP.

In the Spring of 2010, student government declined to support students who were pushing UF to join the Worker Rights Consortium. Instead, the students challenged the administration on their own, and UF ultimately supported the initiative as part of its push for social sustainability. In the past year, companies like Nike and Russel Athletic, feeling the heat from college campuses around the country, have been forced to improve their treatment of workers who make university athletic apparel. The lesson? When students speak up, there’s always a chance the administration will listen and that good will come of it.

But if student leaders are too busy trying to catch the eye of a powerful alumni network instead of listening to the student body as a whole, they’re often reluctant to challenge the people in charge – even when the university stands to benefit in the long run. By getting involved – or simply by showing up to vote – you force them to listen.

Don’t stay clueless about the capabilities of SG, realize that it is something worth taking part in. What would you do with $14 million? We all can – and should – have a say.

Think of all of the awesome things we could do with $14 million. Here are some ideas. What are yours? Submit them at dev.thefineprintuf.org/sg.

  • There should be an open forum for students to discuss ideas and see what goes on with the money. Set up a website for online discussions and brainstorming, and let students track where their money is going in real time.
  • Provide more scrutiny of Aramark’s campus food service monopoly, instead of relying on toothless advisory committees with a handful of student members. Research ways we could model a campus food service pilot program on something like the Yale Sustainable Food Project. See page 22 (print edition) for more info.
  • Create an official working group of students to connect UF to the Worker Rights Consortium. FSU joined the consortium before UF did but has since left the organization after students didn’t hold up their end of the bargain with the administration. To help ensure that Gator apparel isn’t made in sweat shops, the student body will have to remain engaged.
  • Join other universities and bring a farmer’s market on campus.
  • Support a successful alternative radio station to highlight local bands and political issues. See page 25 (print edition) for more info.
  • Get the students involved in nominating Accent speakers, so we don’t wind up offering $85,000 to Jeremy Piven (the star of HBO’s Entourage, who fortunately canceled). Also, let professors voice their input to bring people who have a focus on academic or intellectual discussion. Try soliciting donors to fund an endowment, so we can have a permanent source of funding for big-ticket speakers, instead of throwing away $500,000 each year.
  • Improve the SG website and actually update it regularly, with meeting notices and other events. Some people don’t get the memos about what’s going on.

*For more ideas, or to submit your own, visit www.thefineprint.org/sg.