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After years of single-party dominance as well as confusion and complaints around student body elections, the Kansas University Student Senate this week approved reforms meant to reduce political scraps and shorten the campaign season.
The vote followed a recent failed effort to end student coalitions, a key and controversial feature of the elections for years.
Coalitions at KU function much like political parties in a parliamentary system, though they are meant to play a role only in the elections, not governing. Candidates are chosen by the coalition members, and students at the university vote for a coalition. The point is to make campaigning easier, though some say in the past they helped create entrenched political cultures and tension.
This year marked only the second time in 19 years that a coalition other than KUnited won the student body election. Marcus Tetwiler and Emma Halling, KU's current student body president and vice president respectively, broke KUnited's longtime dominance with their Ad Astra coalition.
Tensions along coalition lines have led to a swirl of complaints in the past. In 2009, for example, vice presidential candidate Alex Porte filed four complaints against United Students, a previous incarnation of KUnited. Among the charges, Porte claimed United Students members of urging students to take free beer, according to the University Daily Kansan. Additionally, Porte charged that United Students asked students to vote on laptops while they watched, a violation of the election code. That charge was dismissed by an election commission hearing board.
Other past elections have sparked complaints over everything from defamation and election tampering to campaigning outside the allowed period and improper "chalking" on sidewalks to promote a party. Last year's election, which put Ad Astra at the head of student government, drew 29 complaints against both parties to the election commission, compared to four from the year before.
In their new positions, Tetwiler and Halling advocated dismantling coalitions altogether and replacing them with an election system in which students choose individual candidates instead of a coalition. Halling said many thought coalitions "disallow student involvement" because of the opaque way they choose candidates. "There's no clear process for determining who's going to be president and vice president next year."
Brandon Woodard, a current senator who ran and won the vice president spot with KUnited last year and lost in a bid for student body president this year, voted against banning coalitions. He called the proposal "a little extreme." Woodard attributes KUnited's past success to its hard work and experience.
The bid to ban coalitions failed after a heated debate in October that lasted for hours, and Tetwiler said afterward that the issue had "polarized" the Senate. This week the senate passed a more modest set of reforms that add a caucus primary so students can pick candidates within a coalition. The election commission's role has also been more clearly defined.
Senators also voted to limit active campaigning, where coalition members approach students with information, to election days only. Halling said this is a move toward "rebuilding social capital with campus at large," after students on campus have grown wary of coalitions vying for their attention during election seasons.