In this election season, American River College is providing a useful lesson of what happens when you don't vote.
The elections for this year's Student Council attracted about 300 students out of some 37,000 enrolled at the Sacramento community college. Low voter turnout isn't unusual at American River, or at many colleges and universities. Nor is it unusual -- at colleges with low turnout -- for a group of students with a shared interest and a desire to serve together to run for office as a slate, and to win.
What happened at American River, however, is a little different. But it fits a pattern in which changing regional demographics can have a quick impact on community colleges. Sacramento has become a center of immigration from Russia, Ukraine and other parts of what was once the Soviet Union. As the Los Angeles Times reported in March, many of the new arrivals are evangelical Christians who have repeatedly organized protests against gay rights. At American River, no one knows how many of these immigrants are enrolled because records don't track that degree of detail. But about 4,000 students in English as a Second Language programs report that their first language was a Slavic tongue, so that is probably a low estimate for the number.
When only 300 students vote in elections, it's not hard for a new group to gain seats -- and so 5 of the 16 members of the Student Council are from the former Soviet Union. On Tuesday, they pushed a measure that passed 8 to 3, with 3 abstentions, to back the effort in California to ban gay marriage. Not only did the Slavic students provide the margin of victory, but their rhetoric angered many supporters of gay rights. One council member was shouted down, according to newspaper accounts, when he called gay people "the aggressors" and said that sexual orientation is a matter of "personal choice." Another accused gay people of organizing "propaganda for homosexuality in front of the cafeteria."
Some 200 students -- many of them with signs and at times shouting -- attended the meeting where the vote took place. The turnout and emotion are unprecedented for the college, officials said. (Here is a photo gallery from The Sacramento Bee .)
Like many of their fellow Californians, American River students believe that the best way to respond to an elected official they don't like is to organize a recall vote, and the college's regulations permit that. Two hundred signatures are needed and organizers say that they have twice that number against those who voted for the resolution, although the petitions haven't been turned in yet.
The students who pushed the measure did not respond to messages.
Keltie Jones, dean of student services, said that the college is trying to make the dispute a positive moment. "People are very energized, which I think is a good thing," she said. "At a commuter community college, it's difficult to get students engaged outside the classroom. This has made a lot of students take notice."
The college has been taking the attitude that students should express whatever their views are, but do so in a civil way. "There have been moments when voices were raised and people got agitated," she said, but people "have been heard." Jones stressed that the college was committed to being "safe" for gay students, whatever the Student Council says. And she said that the tensions over the Slavic-speaking bloc on the student government reflected part of the process of what happens when immigrant groups come to the United States.
"It's a wonderful thing for any immigrant community to become connected to or engaged in our higher education system," she said. "That's how people will learn more about the world. Sometimes there is some head-butting as that process gets worked through."
Loren Smith, a professor of behavior and social sciences at the college who also advises the gay student group there, said that the Student Council appears "to have ignited some fire in the 30,000 students who never voted," and he thinks that's a good thing. Smith said he would be happy to see those who voted to back the gay marriage ban recalled. Of the current student leaders, he said that "it was student apathy that allowed them to get away with this."
Smith said that the student body generally is not hostile to gay rights, but that a minority "figured out a way to be influential here."
While much of the debate has been about the proposal to ban gay marriage, some student government members raised other issues. Chuck Stevens abstained from the vote. He described himself as a committed Christian who has an opinion on on the statewide referendum on gay marriage, but who will express it privately, with his vote on Election Day, not in the Student Council.
"I didn't feel that it was necessary for the student association to take any side of this issue when we have bigger stuff to worry about. I'm worried about whether people have enough money to pay for school books for this year," he said. The discussions about religion and gay rights upset him, he said, because "I'm here to learn and I'm trying to keep religious politics out of my school."