May 23, 2020

Reflections on a Fiasco

A catastrophic, contested election proves the need for electoral reform.

Earlier this week, The Maroon published Matthew Pinna’s op-ed calling for a fundamental restructuring of Student Government (SG). After a typically contentious election, these kinds of proposals are welcome. While Pinna misses the mark on some of his prescriptions, many of the issues he sees line up with the flaws I’ve encountered during my time in student government and should provide ample opportunities for next year’s reform-minded representatives.

Pinna’s proposal hinges on two major changes: electing class representatives by house and electing the executive slate from within College Council. Both proposals, however, seem doomed to fail. We already have a system of “student government” that elects representatives from each house, the Inter-House Council (IHC). (I served on IHC my first year, though I rarely attended the meetings.)

Elections to IHC are usually less contentious, but not for the reasons Pinna hopes would translate to his new system of SG elections. There’s rarely any “substantive debate” at IHC elections; instead, it’s usually the fifth or sixth position elected at the house meeting that also elects other house positions, from house president to wellness czars. The position is essentially handed out to whoever wants it because so few people run, and voter turnout is entirely a function of whatever your RA or RH made for that house meeting. Electing SG representatives at this meeting would likely decrease turnout rather than increase it, especially as it places an additional burden on upperclassmen living off-campus who would have to return to their first-year house to vote.

The other half of Pinna’s suggestion, that executive slate should be elected by College Council, has an obvious flaw, but his oversight points to a bigger problem. Graduate students, who outnumber undergrads three to two, are the largest voting bloc in university-wide elections. If they turned out proportional to their numbers, it’d be graduate students—not undergraduates—who played the decisive role in electing the executive slate.

But graduate students, by and large, don’t vote at all. There are 3,497 students in the Biological Sciences Division; 23 of them voted in the most recent SG election, or a turnout of 0.7 percent. Disenfranchising these voters is not the solution, but the fact that they don’t seem to figure at all into Pinna’s proposal is indicative of a bigger problem: while student government is supposed to represent all students, graduate students largely don’t participate. I don’t have any ready-made solutions, but increasing graduate student involvement should be a top priority for those seeking to “overhaul” the University’s electoral system.

But the recent election does highlight a trio of problems in our electoral system. The first, and the most difficult to address, is what Pinna calls a “toxic culture around Student Government.” It’s undeniable that SG elections are unpleasant—our past two slate elections have been defined by rumors of sexual misconduct of varying degrees—but elevating the discourse is a tricky question, in part because students genuinely deserve to know if they’re electing someone with that kind of history before voting for them.

One solution may simply be giving SG something meaningful to debate. A common criticism of both the Engage and Elevate slates during the election was that there was little distinction between their platforms; elections with no policy disagreement will almost always become contests of character. Independence, to their credit, proposed a meaningful and distinct reform that made them stand out. While the particular merits of independence are debatable, it represents the kind of structural reform that is necessary to create an SG with the power to shape the experience of the student body, a prerequisite to policy-focused elections.

The executive slate election results indicate the second problem. The Engage slate won with 21.6 percent of the vote, ahead of Independence with 20.8 percent. It doesn’t seem radical to suggest that no candidate or slate should be able to win the election outright with less than a quarter of the vote, and it’s not difficult to imagine how this electoral system could lead to disaster if a few variables were switched. (Imagine if the Moose Party slate, for instance, accidentally ended up in charge of SG.) It’s clear that some basic electoral reform, whether through a second round of voting between the top two candidates or the ranked-choice voting already used to elect members of the Elections & Rules Committee, is necessary to ensure that the slate elected actually represents a majority of the student body.

The third and final problem was actually a feature of this year’s election, not a bug. This year, E&R waived the signature requirement, allowing slates to appear on the ballot without facing the onerous task of collecting 300 signatures. This requirement has been a burden in the past; it’s hard not to remember the CARE slate’s race to find enough signatures in the hours before they had to file. If finding 300 signatures was a difficult lift for the most organized and competent executive slate since at least the United Progress days, it’s hard not to speculate about all the slates that could have been.

This year, four slates appeared on the ballot, the most since spring 2016. Eliminating the requirement did not lead to a flood of satirical or low-effort slates; instead, a handful of slates who may otherwise not have participated were able to lend their voices to the ongoing conversation on how student government can best serve its constituents. While some form of filing requirement may be necessary when we return to campus, it’s clear that a lower threshold can produce a greater diversity of perspectives and, ultimately, a better election.

While Pinna’s specific proposals for reforming student government are flawed, the broader thrust of his argument is fundamentally correct: student government elections are overdue for some kind of reform. The most recent election serves to highlight a few areas where change is desperately needed: ballot access, ranked-choice voting or a runoff election, and the large-scale reform necessary to create policy-focused elections. I’m in my last few weeks on Student Government, but I hope that reform-minded activists like Pinna will continue to press for these kinds of changes while continuing to propose new ideas for how student government can function. Otherwise, Student Government elections will continue to be as disappointing as Shinju’s house salad.

Sam Joyce is a fourth-year in the College.