The Webster Groves City Council’s delay of campus projects motivated officers of Student Government Association (SGA) to give students a voice in community matters. TurboVote, a program SGA hopes will encourage students to register to vote in Webster Groves, was the most voted for issue at the setting of the Delegates’ Agenda.
SGA Student Organization Liaison Alexander Bonney said the idea to register on-campus students in the Webster Groves district and increase interest in voting came from himself and other SGA officers. He said Delegates’ Agenda Graduate Assistant to Student Governance Kris Parsons pitched TurboVote a few days before Delegates’ Agenda. TurboVote would allow Webster students who live on campus to register to vote in Webster Groves.
“(Pushing to allow student voters) is not an attack on city council. It’s not like we’re going to vote everyone out. There’s plenty of people on city council that do support us, but unless they recognize we are a voting body and that we have rights and that we aren’t being fairly represented at city council nothing is going to get done,” Bonney said.
Bonney said SGA formed the Community Engagement Committee over the summer to create a better relationship with the Webster Groves community.
“We tried to positively affect the way the community was interacting with the university because we saw a very slow progress on Webster’s ability to get things done in the community through city council,” Bonney said.
The setting of the Delegates’ Agenda was on Sept. 5 in Sunnen Lounge to decide which five topics would be presented to President Elizabeth Stroble and other Webster University administration.
SGA leaders and other student organizations voted on 25 issues representative of what the student body felt should be addressed. The vote was to determine which five issues students would present at Delegates’ Agenda. TurboVote was selected with 21 votes as the top issue.
SGA Senator and Chairman of the Community Engagement Committee Jacob Walker said if students are living in Webster Groves and “at least (paying) sale taxes” they should have a say in issues that affect them.
“A component of the committee that has been there from the beginning is that we cannot simply ask for things to be done for us, we have to make things be done for us because we have that right as constituents no matter how long we’re here,” Walker said.
Bonney pitched TurboVote at the setting of the Delegates’ Agenda.
“In order to get things like parking garages and stuff we do have to go through the city, and there has been some conflict there,” Bonney said. “So there needs to be a greater degree of student involvement within the city of Webster Groves for us to eventually make any headway.”
TurboVote is a non-partisan, not-for-profit program “made by students, for students.” Bonney said the program could be integrated in student orientation, registration and Webster Connections, prompting students living on campus to re-register to vote within the Webster Groves District.
SGA Sergeant-at-Arms Chris Hawk encouraged anyone voting for housing or parking issues to vote for TurboVote to be on Delegates’ Agenda. Housing was the second most voted for issue and parking was not included on the ballot. Hawk said the progression of many of the university’s issues are “tied up” in city council and legal issues. He cited the parking garage and crosswalks around campus as examples.
“With a greater representation from students there’s a desire and a vested voting interest in appeasing students at Webster University that live on campus,” Hawk said at the setting of the Delegates’ Agenda. “All of these things are tied together and that is tied into voting. It’s longer down the road, but that’s an important one.”
Bonney said registering students living on campus to vote gives them a say in what decisions are made on issues affecting the university.
“This way we would be able to better represent the voice of Webster University within the external community and hopefully get some headway on these issues by exercising that right to vote,” Bonney said.
The only cost if the university employed TurboVote would be the fee to re-register, which is about $5.
Walker said the committee’s work over the summer cleared up misunderstanding between students and the Webster Groves community. He said the fact students aren’t considered a direct part of the community is a major reason SGA is pushing students to vote.
“It’s about increasing the student’s influence, and not necessarily the university’s influence, but the student’s influence on what happens in the city of Webster Groves,” Walker said. “Everyone should have representation.”
The program is “leading a new effort to reinvent campus voter engagement,” TurboVote Team Member Sam Novey wrote on the company’s blog on June 19. He cited Salem, Virginia’s Roanoke College as an example of a university that uses TurboVote in student orientation.
“The New Standard is simple: every college should provide each student with all the information and materials that he or she needs to vote in every election, from local to presidential,” Novey wrote on the blog.
In the past year several of the university’s expansion plans have been delayed as a result of disagreements in city hall. A garage extension, the building of a power sub-station and university use of parts of Eden Theological Seminary’s campus have held back progression of the university’s master plan.
“Through those events we saw it was very clear that we needed to have a bigger say in what happens in the community. In order to do that, in order to make the city council and everyone recognize that the on-campus residents here at Webster are legally allowed to vote and are official constituents of city council and individual that should be fairly represented rather than the wealthy taxpayers on the other side of Eden, we would have to get people to go out and vote,” Bonney said.
Walker said students should be held to the same standard as any member of the Webster Groves community.
“Students have a distinct voice and a distinct perspective on the ways things should be done in order to improve the local communities, our state government and our national government as well,” Walker said. “You can’t start ranking people involved in communities. If someone is a member of a community, civically speaking and with regards to their voting rights, they’re just as much a member as a billionaire or a person on public assistance.”
Walker said through the Community Engagement Committee, SGA created a base relationship with city officials. He said they worked on relationships that “can get things done.”
“We’re not looking to become this big powerful voting block, kicking people out of anything, we simply just want our voices to be heard and to be considered in decision making processes,” Walker said.