Monday, November 20, 2017
Opinion

Move to amend Constitution acts against public interest

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Last year, the Legislature put up new barriers to voting that will disproportionately affect students. This year, lawmakers are aiming at student representation again, this time trying to bypass their right to elect their own representative to the Board of Governors, which regulates universities. In both cases, if the Legislature is seeking to show Florida's future citizens that fostering representative democracy is not one of its core values, then it is succeeding.

In addition to making it harder to register new voters, last year's HB 1355 reversed a 40-year-old right to change one's address at the polling precinct and vote on a regular ballot. Instead, those who move to a different county and must change their address at the polls will see their votes relegated to provisional ballots, which have a notorious history of going uncounted. This will hit students hard, as they often change addresses.

This session the Legislature is seeking to amend the Florida Constitution to require that the lone student representative on the Board of Governors no longer be elected by students but be appointed by the governor.

Currently, the 11 elected student body presidents within the state university system come together in the Florida Student Association to elect the sole student representative to the Board of Governors. This method has functioned well for students since 2001 and should continue to do so. The Legislature is proposing HJR 931 to assist student leaders at Florida State University and the University of Florida in seizing control of the one seat — of 17 — on the Board of Governors that students, through the FSA, can elect to represent themselves.

In order to find a public reason for spending more than $65,000 on this proposal, legislators have baselessly accused the FSA of being a "pay to play" organization because member groups pay dues, which are used to coordinate and conduct statewide activities. Countering these false allegations and demonstrating the commitment to broadly representing students, FSA's own bylaws now explicitly state that universities are not required to pay dues to partake in it or serve on the Board of Governors. This is not enough for proponents of HJR 931 because the bill is not about achieving fairness in representation. What the proposal will do is enable Florida's most influential universities and legislators to have a much greater hand in deciding who will be appointed to the seat.

Amending the state Constitution against the public interest is not only a terrible idea in itself, but is proposed at the expense of all the students who are not enrolled at Florida State University or the University of Florida. The proposal to make the seat a gubernatorial appointment would favor the highest profile universities, putting the students of the other nine universities at a significant disadvantage. The student representative will no longer be held accountable for her or his actions by a board of fellow elected student body presidents, and the few existing resources of effective student representation would be eliminated.

Nine of eleven student body presidents, representing 230,000 Florida students, and members of the Florida Advisory Council of Faculty Senates, agree that there is nothing in this issue that merits either HJR 931 or the time and resources necessary to amend the state Constitution. Interestingly, the right of faculty to keep electing its sole representative on the Board of Governors, through their organization, has not yet been touched by this senseless maneuver. If anything, it can be argued that students and faculty need more representation — not less — than the little they have now.

As such, there is absolutely no reason to waste more than $65,000 in taxpayer funds seeking to amend the Florida Constitution. The Legislature is setting a negative example in giving credence to this non-issue at the expense of the very notion that representative democracy means anything in Florida.

Michael Long, far left, is chairman of the Florida Student Association; Yury Konnikov, near left, is president of the Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform.

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