It’s time to democratize the ASUC: Here’s how we can do it

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ASUC meetings have begun for the new school year, which means a score of new senators, executives and bureaucrats have officially been sworn in. Meanwhile, thousands of the students they serve are beginning to rightfully view the ASUC as an institution that is growing more inaccessible, unproductive and elitist by the year. As someone who cares deeply about the future of the ASUC, which has existed at UC Berkeley for more than 130 years, I find this development to be quite concerning.

Instead of working on remedying issues pertinent to campus life, the ASUC has too often focused on taking stances on national and international issues, over which it has no authority. When I began my tenure as an ASUC senator in fall 2019, I was shocked to discover that the very first resolution put before a senate vote was one encouraging our humble student government to officially stand in solidarity with the then-ongoing Sudanese Revolution. Just a few weeks later, we voted on a similarly ambitious bill condemning the most populous democracy in the world — the Republic of India — for its effort to increase state control over the region of Kashmir.

Before casting the sole vote against this resolution, I passionately made the argument that drafting, debating and voting on it was a waste of ASUC time and resources. Were we, as ASUC senators, seriously arrogant enough to believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India would heed the advice of a small group of California adolescents in over their heads? In private conversations after the vote, I discovered that several of my fellow senators who had voted for the resolution along with the earlier one pertaining to Sudan could not locate Kashmir or Sudan on a map, let alone begin to grasp the complex geopolitical factors surrounding each conflict.

This trend is one of many pointing to the fact that the ASUC is deeply out of touch with the UC Berkeley student body. Out of a total student population of more than 43,000, only approximately 11,000 participated in the 2020 ASUC election. In recent years, the ASUC has also devolved into a two-party system that seems to be dominated by divisive identity politics and toxic battles of ego. Year after year, the candidates of the major ASUC parties tend to be party insiders chosen through appointment rather than any democratic primary system. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that, come election season, the Student Action party annually allocates a significant proportion of its senate nominations to the staff of previous Student Action senators. This has led to the ASUC gradually coming to resemble an oligarchy more than it does a democracy.

My intention in pointing out these issues is neither to dishonor nor to discredit the ASUC, but rather to halt its ever-hastening slide into total irrelevance. I believe that unless prompt action is taken, in a few years’ time, almost every UC Berkeley student will be fully disengaged from the ASUC. I am far from the first to arrive at such a somber conclusion. The Daily Californian, for example, published an editorial in 2019 titled “Unless change is made, the ASUC’s party system will be its downfall.” Unfortunately, critics of the ASUC have consistently erred in their inability to pave an alternate path forward — until now.

To fix the ASUC, its current officials need to work on granting students more say in its day-to-day affairs. They can do this by adopting a simple system I have formulated, inspired by one of the most democratic governments in history — that of ancient Athens, which was the world’s first (and arguably only) known direct democracy, in which citizens rather than representatives drafted and voted on legislation. The ASUC can be transformed into an analogous direct democracy through two easy reforms.

First, the senate committees should allow any and all students to submit resolutions for consideration through an online portal. If the current ASUC views this proposal as too progressive, a middle-ground compromise could be to add a requirement that all of these submitted resolutions have to be co-signed and approved by at least 100-150 fellow students for the senate to consider them.

Second, the ASUC president should establish a second legislative chamber that would have to certify (or alternatively, vote down) all senate-approved resolutions before they can reach the president’s office for final approval. This new legislative chamber would be open to all students who wish to participate and should also be set up to operate through an online portal.

Together, these two reforms would give all students a voice in the ASUC. Students would be able to set the agenda for the senate while also keeping it in check. I believe that this would almost assuredly shift the conversation within the ASUC toward issues that actually matter to students and that are relevant to daily life on campus.

Best of all, this proposal would not even require an alteration of the ASUC Constitution. It would simply necessitate an informal agreement between ASUC senators and the president to change their procedural standards. If, however, the senate and president push back against these reforms in an effort to preserve the oligarchical status quo, I encourage students to hold them accountable by politely and sincerely asking, “What’s wrong with more democracy?”

Milton Zerman is a former ASUC senator and a 2020 graduate of UC Berkeley.