Fighting for Students’ Voices — and My Own

Women don’t run for office nearly as often as men do. But at the University of West Florida this year, two women and one man ran for Student Government Association President — I was one of them. And as a result of a strange decision by the election commission, I found myself embroiled in an unexpected election rules challenge. While first running a normal campaign and then advocating for the votes of my fellow students to count in a real runoff election, I learned a lot about why I shouldn’t have doubted my qualifications and why more women should be confident and take the risk of seeking elected office.

I’m an involved student on campus. I started a student organization and ran it for two years while also participating in student government and spearheading other initiatives at my university. I knew I loved my school and had more I could contribute on a higher level in student government. Yet, it took a lot of convincing for me to run. One of my closest friends (and current roommate) had decided to run for president months prior. For a long time I denied that I wanted to run, too, because of it. But as the date for filing got closer, I started to reflect on my own goals and passions. I met with confidants, secretly hoping they would talk me out of it.

But I couldn’t get rid of that nagging feeling inside telling me that if I never ran then I would never know.

A week before filing, I confronted my friend about my possible run. The conversation turned cold when I let her know I was going to run against her for SGA president. She felt I had betrayed her trust, and I struggled to adapt to the change in our relationship from inseparable to hardly together. Then a third candidate entered the race, one of my guy friends who had served in student government. For the past two years, the political climate at our school had been uneventful — the past two presidents ran unopposed. This was not a normal year.

For a month and a half, I ran the best campaign possible. My competence was never questioned and all the students I met with treated me with the utmost respect and kindness. I learned that I enjoyed the campaign process and felt confident going into the election.

The night the election results came in, everyone expected a runoff. With three candidates, all with competitive campaigns, it was unlikely there would be a majority for anyone. The question was who would be in that runoff. The results were announced: I was in third place and neither of my friends won a majority. At that moment, everything seemed clear. They would simply run against each other the following Tuesday.

The next morning, my roommate said she needed to talk with me. I thought she would be asking for my endorsement for the runoff. I was wrong.

She was dropping out of the runoff and terminating her campaign.

I was shocked. After all this time, hard work, and energy, she realized she needed to refocus her life on getting into med-school, not serving as student government president. I admired her for coming to terms with her life and what she needed to do.

After reeling from the news, I stepped back and realized this meant I would now qualify for the runoff. After all, our President and Vice President must be elected by a majority of votes from the student body, according to our statutes.

But it wasn’t going to be as easy for me to get on the runoff ballot as I initially expected.

The SGA elections commission made a decision to hold a runoff with the male candidate as the only ticket and then have students vote to abstain as the only other option. It was a solution created to — I believe improperly — fulfill a statutory requirement and it would guarantee that ticket a majority, while keeping me off the ballot entirely.

Above all, I was disappointed that after such a strong, competitive campaign cycle that it would end with an uncontested “runoff”. The idea of voting to abstain is in itself an oxymoron. And after all, a runoff is always between two candidates and brings two options for voters to choose from. Our SGA has always prided itself on hearing the voice of students. Their voice would be considered insignificant in this situation.

So, I worked with a fellow student to draft and send an appeal to our SGA Supreme Court just hours after the decision was released.

On Monday afternoon I received word that we would be heard by the court in a hearing Wednesday. The “runoff” was set for that Tuesday, so I assumed it had been postponed. But it wasn’t. It would be held as planned and the results of the election would be valid, pending the hearing. I wondered how the court could decide this based on our statutes and why they would go through with it if they didn’t yet know what the hearing outcome would be. After sending a few messages pointing out the flaw in this plan, less than 12 hours before the “runoff” was scheduled to occur, the elections commission sent out an email postponing it.

I spent hours the following day prepping, researching, and building up an argument to present my best case to the court.

Our elections statutes are vague, unclear, and leave much to the imagination. In legal terms, judges always rule in favor of liberty when a statute or law is so unclear that no decision can be based off the terms there. It seemed like a clear-cut case: If you have the ability to have two candidates in the runoff and nothing is legally stopping you, the question must be asked, why would you rule in favor of an undemocratic procedure?

As I went through the entire appeals process, I was hyper aware of what people thought of me and my intentions. I risked looking like a sore loser or even the dreaded “B word.” People thought I was trying to sabotage the current candidates and that I simply couldn’t accept the loss I had received during the first round of the election. But I appealed because I believed the system had failed students. I was simply asking to compete and give students a choice.

Wednesday at 5 p.m. I stood and made my case in front of a crowded room of students. My voice wavering at first and then growing stronger and more powerful as I found my solid ground, I laid it all out before the four students serving on our court. The court adjourned for ten minutes and returned with their decision.

I would not be allowed on the runoff ballot.

The next day, the postponed “runoff” was held and the only ticket allowed on the ballot won. It felt wrong. Not because I didn’t make it but because the runoff where students were supposed to have a choice ended with an uncontested election.

And when I reflected on the winner, I realized that he ran despite not having a lot of experience. Yet, he felt qualified to run. Which is ok: if you have a calling for public office, then you should go for it. But I would never have run for this position if I had that little experience. And that’s when I realized why so few women run for political office. As women, we have to be five times more qualified than any man to feel as if we even have the right to run. Even then, sometimes we don’t, even at the level of student government. I had hoped that we would have a woman SGA president after ten years of having only men serve in the role. Two extremely qualified women ran against a man with less experience and neither woman won. Student Government Associations are places where many women who go on to become politicians get that critical experience and training. Those within student government should be willing to provide critical competition and democratic procedures whenever possible.

When I ask myself whether I regret running, I always answer with a firm no. It was so often grueling, intolerable, and frustrating to the point of wanting to throw all my leftover campaign buttons outside my apartment window. Yet I learned in two months what it’s like to run for office, how to navigate lost relationships, and how to strengthen new ones. I learned what it feels like to fight hard for something you care about, and to still believe in it even when your efforts go unreciprocated.

So run. Run even if you don’t think you’re good enough. Run because you know you’d love it and that you’d do a good job. Even though it will be one of the hardest things you ever do, you’ll become a strong and incredible force for change. And whether you win or lose, you will wake up one day and realize that the woman staring back at you in the mirror is someone you can truly be proud of.

Abigail Megginson studies Journalism and Political Science at the University of West Florida while also serving as the editor-in-chief of a student magazine she founded on campus. She has spent two summers interning on Capitol Hill for members of Congress. Abigail works as the social media fellow for College to Congress, a nonprofit devoted to providing congressional internships for Pell Grant eligible students. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career in DC, in either political journalism or the nonprofit sector.