Students unify to start AU Elects club
This story originally appeared in the print Oct. 16, 2015 Special Edition of The Eagle.
AU students attempting to support candidates in the 2016 presidential election have run into a roadblock: they may not be able to form official clubs.
Sophie Martin, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, decided to create a club to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I)for the Democratic presidential nomination over the summer. Despite Sanders’ well-documented popularity among college students, Martin’s club has struggled to achieve official status since the beginning of the year.
“It’s become apparent that [forming a club] is not the easiest thing to do on a college campus, which is very empowering in a way,” Martin said. “That means that there are people that don’t want us to do this type of thing because it works, and it’s good, and it gets people voting and it gets people elected.”
Politically-active students who express strong support for 2016 candidates have channeled their energy into creating the club AU Elects. The organization is designed for students supporting an array of candidates. However, AU Elects organizers faced difficulties in the process of achieving official accreditation through Student Activities in the Office of Campus Life.
“You would think that AU would support something like this, and it’s shocking that they’re not,” Zoey Salsbury, the president of AU Elects, said. “A big thing they emphasized when I was applying as a freshman was how politically active the student body is.”
Smaller groups of students supporting specific candidates pose problems for the University if they become official clubs, according to Michael Elmore, the senior director of the University Center and Student Activities.
AU has specific guidelines clubs must follow to be recognized and access money from the AU Club Council. Political clubs must abide by Section 501 (c)(3) of the International Revenue Code and the Federal Election Campaign Act. These laws prevent all universities from being involved in political activities, and therefore, a student club endorsed by a university cannot advocate for a specific candidate.
“According to the University’s interpretation of these laws, student groups can’t officially put themselves in a campaign,” Elmore said. “We have to guard against any public perception that AU is trying to participate in a political activity.”
Elmore said individual students have the right to express their views. For example, groups like AU College Democrats and AU College Republicans are allowed to attend political rallies and events as long as it’s clear that they are attending as Democrat and Republican individuals, not representatives of AU.
On Oct. 6, AU Students for Bernie Sanders attempted to throw a kick off event using campus space reserved by AU Democrats. However, the University warned that going through with the event would violate school policies related to these laws and put AU Democrats’ charter in jeopardy.
“Frankly, it can be a moving target trying to walk the line between giving students their rights and following these laws because students can be quite inventive,” Elmore said. “We try to help give students a space to express themselves.”
In response, the student groups AU Students for Bernie Sanders, AU Students for Rand [Paul], AU Students for [Marco] Rubio and AU Students for [Martin] O’Malley merged around the concept of AU Elects. The recently -formed group AU Students for Hillary [Clinton] is also considering joining AU Elects.
“People with staunch political views on campus are burnt out because politics at AU are so antagonistic,” Salsbury said. “We want to make it more fun and something anyone can get involved with.”
AU Elects has faced difficulty in forming under this broader banner. However, Sam Shumate, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, a member of Students for Rubio and the secretary of AU Elects, said he was disappointed by the lack of support Student Activities has given the club organizers.
“In terms of getting the club recognized, it took them two months just to give me an answer,” Shumate said. “The bureaucratic institution for club recognition at AU is counterproductive.”
Salsbury was initially involved with AU Students for Bernie Sanders, which exists along with all of the other candidate clubs as a candidate committee within AU Elects. In the future, the club hopes to host events for undecided students, debate parties, mock debates, voter registration drives and other forms of outreach to get more people involved with politics.
“[In AU Elects,] we want to be sustainable past 2016,” Salsbury said. “AU is also sorely missing bipartisanship. We want to increase voter involvement and discussions of greater issues around the country.”
Despite the club’s goals, Salsbury remains concerned that AU Elects might not be granted accreditation. She said the members of the combined club were never specifically informed about AU’s legal considerations surrounding political endorsements.
“We have to be sustainable, and we have to go beyond this election, but the University doesn’t believe us,” Salsbury said. “We have to write a whole sustainability plan, which no club I have heard of has done before.”
Elmore said the idea of a sustainability plan has been incorporated into the club recognition process over the past few years.
“In the past, we have had groups put down lists of names of members, but they were really only centered around one person with a personal agenda,” Elmore said. “When the group dies when you leave, we don’t really want that to happen.”
Members of AU Elects are unsure of what the club’s future holds, according to Salsbury. While the candidate committees plan to do what they can to support their candidate, by coming together into one organization, members hope to incorporate more students into AU’s conversation about politics.
“I am a super liberal, but when I came to AU, I made friends that aren’t, and I saw it was hard for them to find a space to share their views,” Salsbury said. “Creating a space for people who don’t know [where they stand] is important too.”
Writer Maria Carrasco contributed to this article.