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May 12, 2020

Student Government Elections Need Overhaul

A better student government starts with a better election process.

The past two weeks have been an absolute headache for many obvious reasons (the pandemic, keeping up with coursework, stress over the political and economic state of our nation), but the Student Government election should not be one of those reasons. Every time I opened my Facebook feed, I was overwhelmed by the chaos that was Student Government elections. Last year was by no stretch easygoing, but this year has been even more of a monstrosity. Aside from the issues directly caused by the pandemic that likely exacerbated the disorder, the election showed that there are glaring concerns with the system as a whole. This year’s disappointing, confusing, and discouraging Student Government election cycle is evidence of why the way Student Government conducts elections must change.

First of all, it is clear that everyone would benefit from a more thorough vetting process. This year, the slates were not required to get signatures due to COVID-19. The signature process is a way to float the idea that they’re running and is another window of time for people to voice their concerns about a particular slate, whether that be due to lack of experience, organization, or past unacceptable behavior. Normally, 300 signatures are required for a slate to run in the election, which is almost double the number of votes the Amplify slate received. Although the signatures do not necessarily correspond with the number of votes received, it is not only an important way of vetting a candidate, but it is a helpful marker of support. There is not enough evidence to attribute all of the chaos of this election to the omission of that step, but it is noteworthy. In other elections, there are primaries that serve as a form of early vetting. Since UChicago elections are much shorter and with fewer candidates, the other measures in place to accomplish this important task are essential. Although the signatures are helpful, however, they are not sufficient in vetting candidates.

There should be a committee that is unaffiliated with any candidate to perform a background check on the people running for various positions, while maintaining the privacy of individuals not directly involved in the election. This committee could be similar to or a branch of the Election and Rules Committee that is already in place. The point of this would not be to limit who could run, but to better hold candidates accountable. However, there is no organized way to discover and share information about candidates in place. In actual government elections, there are news organizations dedicated to researching potential candidates with resources for that task much greater than any organization currently on campus. It sometimes seems like as a student body, we rely on the UChicago Secrets page to float information about candidates, which ends up being triggering, fear-mongering, and confusing. On one hand, the Secrets page allows people to anonymously share information, but it can also lead to harmful language in the comments section and contradicting information in later posts. The creation of an accessible way for people to anonymously share information and a responsible group of people to investigate and report on it could prevent a lot of the unnecessary confusion, speculation, and pain that may potentially result when the only clear way to speak out is on social media. That needs to change, because UChicago’s undergraduate population deserves both representatives who are forthcoming about their past actions and the establishment of a better system for holding them to that standard.

Secondly, the election cycle should be longer by at least one week. Personally, it has felt that this election has flown by, with new information being released after voting had already opened. This year, there were only two and a half weeks from the date the petitions were submitted until voting opened, which was insufficient time for people to decide on a candidate as new information was released throughout. Although normally there is an additional week for slates to gather signatures before petitions must be submitted, the length of time after the choices have been confirmed is the same. There is no reason not to extend the period of time during which voters can learn about the different platforms and slates and compare the options when the benefit of more informed voters is so great. After a student has submitted their ballot, they have no option to retract or change it, so it is difficult to avoid making a decision that is not based on incomplete information unless the voter waits until the last moment to vote. Naturally, this occurs to some extent in every election, but it can be mitigated in ours if the election cycle begins earlier. The release of information is in part limited by the unavoidable time constraints of getting in touch with people behind the scenes, performing many rounds of interviews, and giving slates time to respond to criticism and correct what they can. Considering that Student Government has the opportunity to have a massive impact on the day-to-day lives of students, an issue this important deserves more time to be considered by voters.

Finally, voting at UChicago should use the instant-runoff voting system, also called “ranked-choice voting.” In this system, if the election has more than two candidates, voters rank the options according to their preference. In the initial round of tallying the votes, if no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and the process repeats itself until there is a winner. In this year’s election, the Engage slate won by a margin of only 16 votes, and nowhere near a majority. Changing the voting system would allow for more widespread satisfaction of the student body in the election results. Many of the comments about our Student Government election that I have seen online and heard through friends are concerns that they are unsure who to vote for and that they do not want to waste their vote on a party that may not win. In elections where more than two slates are running, this is why a different system of voting would make sense. It would allow for students to vote for candidates that they actually believe are the best option without worrying about sacrificing votes. Furthermore, in an election like this year’s where one slate withdrew after voting began, ballots would not lose their value. The recent statement from the Election and Rules Committee regarding the technical capabilities of Blueprint, the program used to count votes, shows that the committee is open to discussing ways to make it more effective. However, if Blueprint is not able to use an instant-runoff voting system, there are other programs that can. Ultimately, this system of voting would allow for the most people to end up with representatives who they are the happiest with.

Student Government elections should not be so hectic, and there are steps that can be taken to organize and better the process for the future. As members of the student body, we should be confident that we are in good hands with our representatives, and that trust begins during the election.

Sylvia Edenbach is a second-year in the College. 

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