Columns, Opinions

Krishnamurthy ’19: Better elections for a better UCS

By
Opinions Editor
Friday, April 14, 2017

Late last month, the Undergraduate Council of Students announced the winners of its annual elections. The results were a startling indictment of student-directed democracy at Brown. Five UCS races — for the positions of president, vice president, chair of student activities, chair of student wellness and chair of campus life — went uncontested, while no one at all ran for the chair of academic affairs. And only 22 percent of the student body voted, a precipitous decline from just two years ago, when nearly half of undergraduates cast their ballots. To put this into context, Haiti in 2011 mustered a greater proportion of voters — that too, a year after a catastrophic earthquake ravaged the whole country.

Thankfully, while this year saw historically low participation in UCS elections, the democratic process doesn’t evaporate overnight. Indeed, it is eminently possible to rejuvenate broad interest in UCS contests and enhance voter turnout — but it will take a dramatic overhaul of the elections process to achieve any meaningful progress.

At first glance, it may seem puritanical to take issue with something as mundane as the bureaucratic configuration of UCS races. Yet democratic participation is the bedrock of student government, which is, in turn, indispensable to the cohesion and contentment of the student body. As early as 1927, school administrators recognized that “under student government, the student comes to feel that the school is his school, its ideals his ideals.” And the eventual result of student government is a crop of students well-versed in the practice and discourse of self-determination, who can unify their school communities in common cause and facilitate the performance of democracy as adults.   

To be clear, the suggestion that UCS elections are in need of substantial reform is not a critique of the students newly elected to lead UCS. By all accounts, they are talented individuals who care deeply about this university and are committed to supporting undergraduate life. But they deserve better than noncompetitive coronations. No self-respecting democratic tradition should capitulate to complacency and accept the indignity of uncontested elections. Studies have demonstrated that candidates without any challengers are more likely to perform poorly as legislators and represent their constituents ineffectively. Further, it becomes impossible for voters to hold incumbents and their policy agendas accountable if there are no alternative candidates to choose from. After all, the biggest threat to democracy isn’t populism or tyranny — it’s apathy, on the part of citizens who don’t care enough to run for office and leaders who don’t do enough to prevent apathetic viewpoints.

To encourage more students to run, UCS ought to implement several core reforms, and lowering the barriers to declaring one’s candidacy should be the priority. According to Article 5.2 of the UCS Elections Code, candidates for UCS must “submit a petition with the signatures of 400 registered undergraduates” — Undergraduate Finance Board candidates need 250 and aspiring UCS general body members need 100 — “to qualify for the ballot.”  Mandating that interested candidates collect such a large quantity of signatures — even to join the general body of UCS — is entirely counterproductive. Presumably, the whole point of this stipulation is to get candidates to demonstrate their sociability by either tapping into existing networks of friends or meeting new people. But 400 is a big number, and the process of getting that many signatures eventually devolves into rote mindlessness, not useful socializing. And it’s unclear how getting hundreds of people to sign a piece of paper handed to them in the Ratty offers even the slightest indication of a candidate’s commitment to UCS or the Brown community. Besides, petitions that call for specific, feasible actions that garner public attention are most worthwhile — not when they endorse something as nebulous and complicated as a person running for office. For all these reasons, UCS should abolish the petition requirement; it merely rewards potential candidates who have a lot of patience (and free time) without seriously testing their ability to make intellectual or organizational contributions to student life.

Next, UCS should allow more student groups to endorse candidates and get involved in public discussions about candidates’ positions. Currently, all student organizations are permitted to endorse UCS candidates, “with the exception of individual Greek houses” and athletic teams, as the UCS elections webpage notes. I’m no frat boy, but this rule feels strangely undemocratic, considering that UCS often passes legislation that can affect life in Greek houses. Here’s a good example: In 2005, UCS called on the University to regulate and reintroduce beer kegs to campus — a move Greek houses supported — which were banned in 1991. Their defiance was immortalized as the “keg stand.” Nice. Moreover, I’m a little fuzzy as to why athletic teams can’t have collective perspectives on UCS candidates either. What’s the institutional difference — between, say, the baseball team and the debate team — that prohibits the former from issuing an endorsement but allows the latter to do so? And who says student-athletes necessarily can’t have a good reason to endorse candidates? Maybe they prefer UCS representatives who understand their specific experience of juggling various curricular and competitive obligations. That’s a perfectly reasonable position, worthy of encapsulation in an endorsement. We must not forget that the positions taken by UCS can affect all students, no matter their affiliations outside of class.

Finally, UCS should extend the timeline of the elections season. This year’s election lasted eight days. Candidates first got to start campaigning after the candidates’ meeting on March 15; the results of the election were announced on March 23. And the UCS debate happened on March 19, just two days before the voting period began on March 21. These timeframes are much too short for students to understand candidates’ positions, hear the debate and cast their ballots in a clear-headed, thoughtful fashion. This saturation of election activity in two weeks is all the worse with view to the fact that many students reach the peak of midterm season in the weeks preceding spring break, and students are unable to get meaningfully involved. So that the process of democracy can unfold at a more reasonable pace, UCS seriously ought to spread all these events out, perhaps throughout the whole month of March.

It is ultimately the prerogative of UCS to consider reforming well-entrenched bureaucratic mechanisms: I can only recommend solutions; I can’t implement them. But a commitment to reform — to reflect, self-assess and continually seek out a broader audience of undergraduates — is an enduring UCS tradition. And now is the perfect time to build on that past, at a time when the Brown community and the country at large face so many concurrent challenges. Three years ago, former UCS president Todd Harris ’14.5 expressed a similar sentiment. He expressed hope that candidates participating in UCS elections would be able to “make UCS a more general body,” and “make sure that we’re still bringing folks in and not just making it kind of a closed group.” Fulfilling this vision is a profound, ongoing mission; reforming the elections process is the perfect place to start.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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