UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly fee fails due to low voter turnout

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As a result of low voter turnout, the Graduate Assembly fee did not pass in the 2021 ASUC elections. Even though the initial result of the referendum indicated that the fee had passed, there was confusion around conflicting campus policy and ASUC bylaws.

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In the 2021 ASUC elections, graduate students voted on a fee proposed by the Graduate Assembly, or GA, which did not pass due to low voter turnout.

In an effort to center graduate students, the GA fee proposed a semesterly $33 fee paid by graduate students. The funds would go toward the GA and replace the graduate student contribution to the ASUC fee, a $27.50 fee that is paid by all students at UC Berkeley.

Emily Mullin, GA delegate and governance workgroup member, described the distribution of the ASUC fee as a bit “clunky.” After students pay their fees, the ASUC receives the fee from campus and then delegates the amount paid by graduate students to the GA.

The GA fee arose out of this larger context of the Graduate Assembly wanting to take a closer look at a lot of the fees that grad students pay,” Mullin said.

While Mullin noted that the equitable disbursement of fees has improved over recent years, the GA was still concerned because historically, graduate students have not heavily participated in ASUC elections, so student fees would often pass without much input from them.

Unlike the ASUC fee, the GA fee would have implemented practices such as a 30% return to financial aid from the fee. The fee also would have included a “sunset clause” which would expire the fee in five years when it would need to be voted on again.

While initial referendum results indicated that all the fee referendums passed, there was confusion around conflicting campus policy and ASUC bylaws.

“There was confusion surrounding referendum results because all referenda, including the GA Fee received more than a majority support,” said Lisa Treidel, GA rules officer and elections council member, in an email. “But none of the referendum met the minimum voter turnout threshold for student fee referendum, which is 20% of the eligible students.”

Campus policy also states that voter turnout should not include abstention votes, which is contradicted by ASUC bylaw 4105 section 5.3. The bylaw says abstention votes should be counted towards meeting a voter turnout threshold for propositions. 

In order to address these conflicting policies, Treidel said in the ASUC Elections Council’s annual bylaws review, they are planning on recommending a bylaw amendment to the ASUC Senate.

As soon as she saw the number of graduate students who voted, Mullin said she knew the GA fee hadn’t passed because they had not met the 20% threshold regardless of whether abstentions were counted or not.

Even though graduate student voter turnout was not high enough to pass the GA fee and was down from last year’s numbers, Mullin said graduate student voter turnout overall has increased significantly over the past few years.

Treidel echoed this notion but said voter turnout for the entire student body has steadily declined since 2014, with the student body turnout this year at 22% compared to 27% in the previous two years.

The turnout decline this year is at least partially due to the pandemic and the virtual nature of the election, Treidel added.

Mullin said low graduate student voter turnout is due to the fact that many don’t feel the need to vote in ASUC elections as it seems like it will not really affect them.

“The fact that the passing of student fees is coupled with the election of ASUC executives really kind of disincentives graduate student participation,” Mullin said.

Ultimately, it will be up to GA delegates and leadership next year to determine whether or not they would like to pursue the GA fee again, Mullin said. She added that the overwhelmingly positive response to the fee was a good sign for future attempts at passing the fee.

Mela Seyoum is a student government reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.