Student involvement influences SG lack of political parties

Low student engagement set up a system with no political parties in FAU Student Government, however this can change.


Juan Fonseca

Photo of the Boca House of Representatives meeting on Sept. 30, 2022.

Sofia De La Espriella, Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the SG budget and incorrectly stated the name of the American Student Government Association.

Florida Atlantic University’s Student Government does not have political parties because the system wasn’t built for political parties existing after an election, SG President Pierce Kennamer said.

SG Chief Justice Benjamin Cohen states that the historically low level of student population engagement has set up a different Student Government system, without political parties, in FAU than other universities in Florida.

We never set up political parties and there’s never been a huge push to radically change our student government to support it,” Kennamer said. 

FAU has been historically a primarily commuter campus and has a much lower population engagement than Florida State University or the University of Florida (UF). Because of this, the set of statutes that SG is governed by specifies that people running for elections are allowed to register as part of a political party, but the party cannot exist past the election.  

The reason statutes allow political parties existence only for elections registration, and not as a separate active organization that exists outside the election cycle is low participation and engagement. 

In UF you constantly see 33% election turnout. [In the Spring 2023 elections, we were lucky to get 5%.] It’s a level of engagement that we, historically, even nowadays haven’t had so there’s less drive to form these political parties,” Cohen said.

With the Spring 2023 elections over, student involvement was lower than it was in Spring 2022. Across the entire university, 2,314 students voted in Spring 2022, while only 1,296 voted in Spring 2023.

Florida International University (FIU) follows a similar pattern to FAU by allowing political parties only during the election cycle. FIU’s SG President Cristhofer Lugo stated that this might be to prevent SG from being divided like real-life politics. 

“Based on what I’ve seen, we only allow political parties during the elections just to use it as a way of gaining support to win. And I think this is because they don’t want the SG to be divided because at the end of the day we work just for student concerns and when having parties, maybe most of the time instead of doing the work they’ll just try to shut each other down,” Lugo said.

However, despite the allowance of political parties, only one party ran during the FIU 2021 elections, and there was merely a 1.14% voter turnout. This low turnout is likely due to the high number of commuter students and less competitive elections, rather than the absence of political parties. 

“Even though we have political parties allowed for elections, historically we haven’t had a large turnout because most of our students are commuters. So I think the discussion between having or not having political parties has to do more with the campus structure,”  Lugo said.  “Having more commuter students than students living on campus would often result in less competitive elections and thus, a lower need to reunite people to win.” 

Based on data from the American Student Government Association (ASGA), the average turnout is four percent among all types of institutions. Public universities tend to be between 10-15%. FAU had an 8% turnout in 2022 elections while University of Florida had 24%. But this difference is not necessarily due to the existence of political parties in the second university. 

According to W.H. Butch Oxendine, executive director in the ASGA, there is no clear evidence of political parties having an influence on voter turnout, but they allow for students of a similar interest to work together. 

“They can share resources, including money and time, to get party members elected to key positions. Some schools with political parties tend to be dominated by Greek involvement, which is logical. Greeks live and study together, so they have the ability to marshal their people power to support specific candidates,” Oxendine said. 

However, in instances where there is minimal competition for candidacy, there may be less of a natural need for political parties. 

Thomas Jefferson advocated for student governments in universities as a way to educate students on citizenship. While it is still a main objective, it has evolved to representing the students for positive changes.

“I think Student Governments are very important since they are a simulation of real life government. Especially in the American context, we have very low voter turnout because politics either doesn’t interest individuals, they don’t see the value of it, or they’re turned off by it. And so it’s very important that young people start to get involved with community, local, and national political decisions early,” said Luz Marina Garcia, an American politics and judicial politics professor at FAU. 

Even though political parties are a tradition the American government heavily relies on, they don’t have a significant influence on SG and how young citizens interact with politics. 

“I’m very sure that the decision they made to not have parties is tainted because of the type of political climate that we have in the country. And the most important thing about a student government is that, no matter their political beliefs, it helps them understand how to get involved and also gather leadership to advocate for certain causes of common good,” Garcia concluded. 

Compared to governments outside the college or university context, SG receives very low numbers of student involvement through voting. 

However, its members have big responsibilities in the university’s major decisions, budget, and representation. FAU SG has over a $9.8 million budget to spend on different initiatives. Some of the recent ones include: Grammarly Premium, the Owls Ending Hunger program, and free parking deals in the city. Next year SG will have just over $9.7 million dollars.

Cohen says he doesn’t think having political parties in SG would be “entirely negative.”

“I don’t think that anything would change in terms of participation, but it would open up that avenue and that can change. Design changes are initiated from members of the Student Government and then pass through the Student Senate and then signed by the Student Body President and Vice President,” Cohen said. 

Sofia De La Espriella is a staff writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or message her on Instagram @sofidelaespriella.