Fear and Loathing of Contested Elections at the University of Maryland

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on Sunday lamenting the fact that at least one conservative group has a new target: student governments.

For Charlie Kirk, higher education is a political battleground — a place where his “Team Right” has been losing for too long.

The rising young conservative star uses his frequent Fox News appearances to blast college campuses as “islands of totalitarianism” filled with liberal students and faculty members who force their worldview upon those around them. So Mr. Kirk’s nonprofit political-advocacy group, Turning Point USA, launched a secret counteroffensive. The goal: getting young conservatives elected to student government at universities around the country.

Campus-based groups of all political stripes have long encouraged their members to pursue leadership roles, and so have fraternities and sororities. What makes Turning Point unique, student leaders say, is that its outside parent organization provides critical manpower — and thousands of dollars — to help win elections.

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Critics say Turning Point has taken on the role of a “super PAC” for student government.

Evidence of Turning Point’s influence in student elections can be found from coast to coast. The Chronicle identified at least a dozen colleges that featured candidates who were either Turning Point members, were endorsed by Turning Point, or received campaign assistance from Mr. Kirk’s group.

“It might seem like kind of a silly thing to try to take over student-government associations,” Mr. Kirk, 23, said during a public appearance before a conservative group in 2015. But he noted that at large universities, student-government budgets can be as much as tens of millions of dollars. And student leaders increasingly have the bully pulpit to champion certain causes — whether progressive issues like divesting college endowments from fossil fuels, or conservative priorities like the elimination of free-speech restrictions.

Now you may think that it’s silly to focus so many resources on student government elections, but Kirk is right; student government groups at large universities control a lot of resources and have a platform on which to gain attention for many issues. During the Ehrlich Administration, the University of Maryland student government organized protests in Annapolis dealing with higher education issues, for example. Additionally, student governments decide which student groups get approval and funding and which ones don’t. We have seen in many instances that groups with conservative political or social ties are usually ones that don’t get funded by “woke” student governments.

Naturally, this all has a tie to our state, as the University of Maryland was one of the schools that Turning Point targeted. The results, however, left something to be desired as the Unity Party ran afoul of campus electioneering rules. The group withdrew from the elections after the Diamondback reported on the “illegal” contributions received from Turning Point:

The entire Unity Party ticket has withdrawn from the University of Maryland SGA election, following a Diamondback article that showed party leadership failed to disclose campaign contributions in preliminary financial reports.

The Unity Party did not report that an affiliate of Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit, had designed some of the ticket’s campaign materials pro bono, a violation of Student Government Association election rules.

The Unity Party’s issue was as much to do with non-disclosure at it did anything. But this does bring to light issues regarding rules on regarding the limitation on participation by outsider candidates. Why are there rules in the first place to limit who can and who cannot support a candidate for student leadership on campus? How were student voters on the University of Maryland campus going to be negatively impacted by the fact that somebody designed a logo for a student body ticket on a pro bono basis?

It shouldn’t be hard to determine why the SGA created the rules that are created. These rules are no different than the rules put into place by members of the General Assembly to create incumbency advantages for themselves at the expense of potential challengers. Why else would the SGA create rules designed to limit participation in student elections?

Student Governments at Maryland and at all schools already have too much authority and influence, an influence that tends to negatively impact conservative students and conservative groups. It’s not a coincidence that you see conservative speakers regularly lambasted and the focus of on-campus protests when nary a peep is spoken about far-left speakers. This is not something that’s limited to Berkeley, either. This Sunday the University of Maryland hosted the Maryland Federation of College Republicans statewide convention and one of the conditions for hosting the convention was that the MDFCR was not allowed to invite the media to the event.

This, of course, says nothing about the efforts of SGA leaders at Maryland to speak out against the Trump Administration or to award themselves salaries for performing their SGA duties.

It’s easy to speculate that there are better things to worry about than student government elections. An argument could be made that Turning Point would be better served spending their money on elections that are more substantively able to change policy. But that does ignore the fact that student government officials often control large budgets at taxpayer-funded colleges and universities. Student governments have the ability to stifle student organizations and to set a policy agenda for the university that may be inconsistent with university values. Until such time as when student governments become more limited in scope, participation in these elections should be open to as many students as possible without restrictions on who can participate and what assistance those who wish to participate To that end, Maryland and other SGA’s should remove barriers to participation, including removing restrictions on who can assist candidates in running for office. Free speech should be for everybody, and SGA’s should be expected to ensure that all candidates have an opportunity to be a part of the process.

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