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Florida students speak out about Student Government with Not My System movement

Are winds of change swirling?

Not My System

On Sunday, a Facebook page criticizing the University of Florida's existing Student Government (SG) hierarchy popped up. And the claims made by the page, Not My System, are serious, especially those made by a former majority party member who is now lamenting a broken process.

Student Government at the University of Florida is run behind closed doors and we want to open them. The System is real. Hear it from someone who was at the top of it. #NotMySystem

Posted by Not My System on Sunday, February 14, 2016

The student in the video, former Swamp Party senator Sabrina Philipp — who gives only her first name in the video, and describes a "culture of fear" within what she calls "The System," the power structure that guides SG politics — laments her role as the "chief strategist" of the former Swamp Party and a central figure in remaking it as the Impact Party that has been active since the late spring of 2015.

The site describes Not My System as "an alliance of students that have come together against the current system of oppression within Student Government. This movement goes far beyond any campaign, and we will use our platform to elevate the voices of those who have been silenced. We are not afraid."

The video, published just after 9 p.m. on Sunday night, has over 50,000 views, more than 1,200 likes, and more than 700 shares as of the publication time of this post on Monday.

The Swamp Party suffered a stunning loss in the Spring 2015 elections, as the upstart Access Party — led by then-student body president-elect Joselin Padron-Rasines, who has served as the first Latina to ever win the role for the last year — won a majority of seats, marking the first time since 1999 that a minority party has done so in the twice-annual UF SG elections.

Philipp claims in the video that "the next day," she received a phone call and was told, "You're in charge of the new party," and that she had "complete and total control" of a rebrand of the party, and "laid the groundwork" for its creation.

While the Impact Party that formed after the defeat of the Swamp Party — which still exists as a body and a voting bloc of elected student representatives, but has not slated candidates for either Fall 2015 or Spring 2016 elections — is not a carbon copy of Swamp, it is, to the best of my knowledge, largely understood as the establishment party, one that has drawn much of its organization from fraternities and sororities, albeit one with slightly more non-Greek influence than previous establishment parties.

"I was them. I was The System," Philipp says, adding that she was on track to and groomed for a role as a bloc leader. "And I thought that if I had that role, I would be able to change The System.

"But I can't. No one who's a part of The System can change it from the inside."

Impact Party campaign manager Blake Murphy, himself a former Swamp Party director of external affairs, disputed Philipp's claims to The Alligatorsaying "Sabrina Philipp is not someone who has ever been affiliated with the Impact Party."

Philipp claims that, despite Impact claiming to be a more inclusive coalition of decision-makers, it is largely a rebranded Swamp Party. She likens the move to rebrand to the former Unite Party rebranding as the Swamp Party after a contentious election Spring 2012 election season that featured Unite leader Jason Tiemeier confessing to throwing away copies of The Alligator to suppress news of Will Muschamp's endorsement of Jesse Schmitt, a Florida football walk-on.and Students Party candidate. That produced a near-miss by the Students Party at the polls.

Philipp says she left the process of rebranding what would become Impact after "being bullied and harassed" attempting to put together a coalition of Greek houses to go against The System at the prompting of a member of Florida Blue Key (FBK) — the storied honorary organization that counts scores of Gators of repute, from Bob Graham to Marco Rubio and Steve Spurrier to Tim Tebow, as alumni.

FBK is also alleged to control SG politics, with a 2012 Alligator investigation of its role in SG politics finding sources that claim, among other charges, that FBK's admission practices limit access to non-white minorities, and are heavily influenced by Greek organizations. And no less than Graham himself told Alligator reporter Joey Flechas that "clandestine activities," including stealing copies of the paper to suppress unflattering editorials, have long been part of UF SG politics.

He recalled incidents of stealing copies of the Alligator on days the newspaper ran editorials supporting the non-Greek, non-Blue-Key-supported party and tapping phones to listen in on conversations of opposing parties.

"I never encountered, in state and federal politics, activities as aggressive as at the University of Florida," he said.

To him, the seedier aspects of campus politics served only to hurt future state leaders.

"If there were lessons taught, they were not good lessons," he said.

The most infamous story of Florida Blue Key involvement in SG politics isn't so old. In the 1990s, Florida Blue Key was sued by Charles Grapski, a UF graduate student who alleged the organization defamed him by posting fliers that falsified convictions during a run for student body president.

The organization was found civilly liable, and eventually settled with Grapski for $85,000. Former UF student body president John McGovern was also found civilly liable, but appealed the ruling, and, in 2002, was accused by Grapski of declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying up. And in 2000, an Alachua County jury ordered former FBK member Peter Vlcek to pay $6 million in damages for his role in the defamation.

In the video, Philipp says she was awarded positions because of her role within The System and as a member of a Greek organization, unlike many voices of dissent who have been categorized as miffed students unhappy about being snubbed for positions because of outsider status, and that her coming forward is meant to encourage others, inside and outside The System, to follow suit.

The Not My System video concludes with a call for unity, for "bringing Gators together," declaring that when Florida students "stand together" to demand Student Government "works for all of us, rather than the few," it will "transform the University of Florida."

Student Goverment elections for the Spring 2016 semester begin Tuesday, February 16, and run through Wednesday, February 16. No candidates from a #NotMySystem Party are slated to appear on a ballot, but there is one amendment urging SG to create a "remote voting platform" to extend easier access to the student body.

While turnout has risen to record levels in recent years, with 12,742 ballots being cast in Spring 2015 elections and another 10,229 being cast in Fall 2015, those numbers represent a small fraction of the UF student body, given that enrollment has hovered just under 50,000 full-time students in recent years. And minority parties have long contended that establishment parties have enjoyed the advantage of ensuring turnout in person through voting blocs comprised of Greek houses, ones susceptible to intimidation and corruption.

Remote and/or online voting might not actually improve turnout, provide no guarantees to any party or group of students, and don't totally solve the issue of corruption. But it would improve access to and expand impact on the political system at the University of Florida for individual students by making voting easier to fit into a busy schedule and more accessible for those with physical limitations.

The only alternative to voting in person at the moment is an absentee balloting system so obscure that it is hardly ever used by students: Just 12 votes in what was a record Spring 2015 turnout came from absentee ballots.

And any arguments about an online platform's feasibility, viability, and potential for fraud are undercut by the existence of stable online voting platforms at Florida State University, the University of South Florida, and the University of Central Florida, as The Alligator pointed out in an editorial endorsing online voting in January.

I voted for the expansion of voting platforms in UF elections in the past, and that was long before UF instituted the Pathway to College Enrollment online-only program that has extended the opportunity to be a Gator to thousands more UF students who may not even live in Gainesville.

More than ever, it is clear to me that every student at the University of Florida needs have a simple, accessible means of voting in Student Government elections.

If you are one, please vote for the institution of online voting in person over the next two days, so that you and generations to follow will enjoy the freedom to never do so again.