Poison Ivy: Campaigns on Campus: College Elections, a Training Ground for Future Politicians and Their Handlers, Are Getting Just as Down and Dirty as the Real Thing

By McGinn, Daniel | Newsweek, February 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

Poison Ivy: Campaigns on Campus: College Elections, a Training Ground for Future Politicians and Their Handlers, Are Getting Just as Down and Dirty as the Real Thing


McGinn, Daniel, Newsweek


As break-ins go, it wasn't exactly Watergate. One afternoon last December, in broad daylight, Harvard College junior John Burton entered the unlocked office of the college's gay-rights organization. Inside sat a box filled with lapel pins, which students wear to show support for the cause. "Free," read the side of the container. "Take." So Burton took--the whole box, containing 180 pins. Using adhesive felt, Burton transformed the pins into campaign buttons publicizing his run for vice president of Harvard's Undergraduate Council. The buttons, in their small way, helped Burton win a landslide victory. But in the venomous world of campus politics, they gave his opponents an opening. Rivals charged Burton with campaign violations. By last week's council meeting Harvard was embroiled in Buttongate. "Be it resolved that John Alexander Burton is impeached for misconduct," read the agenda. If two thirds of the council voted against him, Burton faced expulsion.

Student government used to be a gentler world, home to clean-scrubbed kids engaged in harmless resume-building. They'd lobby on behalf of their classmates for more parking, lower tuition and better cafeteria food. At Harvard, the council was once so boring that even Al Gore couldn't stand it, quitting after just a year. The issues haven't changed, but lately the tactics have. On campuses from coast to coast, elections now look like the food fight in "Animal House." From Duke to Portland State to UCLA, campus newspapers recite a litany of misbehavior: ballot-stuffing, bribery, vandalism and rumor-mongering.

Several forces drive the nastiness. One is increased competition, as new constituencies on campus--minorities and gays, for example--discover they can get things done through student government. "It used to be traditional groups--the Greeks, the jocks--would be the presumptive nominees," says Stacy Lee of the U.S. Student Association. "Now races are becoming more wide open." Since campus elections still usually have low turnouts, just a few extra votes can change the outcome, creating big incentives for cheating. Adult politicians get a share of the blame, too, for introducing students to tactics like attack ads and impeachment. "People have seen how it's worked in Washington," says Tim Young, president at Portland State University.

Young's predecessor, Chocka Guiden, was one of Portland State's first African-American presidents, and she fended off impeachment charges last year. "I was accused of, I guess, bribery," she says, calling the charge "frivolous." The next campaign was particularly vicious. Two election committee members had their cars vandalized. One candidate reportedly had a breakdown and required counseling. "My GPA went from a 3.7 to a 3.3," says Estelle Love, an election commissioner who oversaw recounts (by hand) of 12,000 ballots.

At many campuses, e-mail is now the electoral tool of choice, which can lead to new problems. Last spring fraternities at UCLA received an e-mail that appeared to be from a minority candidate opposing the Greek slate. "Go ahead and have your frat parties while raping women," it said. "Your system of oppression, sexism, homophobia and racism will never survive." Uproar ensued. The e-mail turned out to be fake; the perpetrator was never caught.

Other schools face constitutional crises long after the election. At the University of Missouri at St. Louis, student president Darwin Butler has been in jail since last fall, according to the school newspaper, after pleading guilty to stealing a credit card. That makes him ripe for impeachment. There's just one problem: the student council can't get enough members to show up to hold a legitimate impeachment vote. So an acting president will run the government until the next election in April. …

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