Editorials, Opinions

Editorial: Elections at Brown have improved, but not enough

By
Editorial Page Board
Friday, April 5, 2019

Just before spring break, the student body voted in new representatives to the Undergraduate Council of Students and the Undergraduate Finance Board. William Zhou ’20 defeated two challengers with 50.1 percent of the vote to become the next UCS president, while Julian DeGeorgia ’20 was narrowly elected the next UFB chair with 51.9 percent of the vote. The Brown Divest student coalition’s referendum that was attached to the ballot — widely discussed around campus in weeks approaching the election — was supported by approximately 69 percent of students who voted on the question.

Last year, The Herald’s editorial page board critiqued the UCS and UFB election process — referencing low voter turnout, a rushed timeline and conflict of interest in debate moderation. A year later, elections at Brown have improved in a number of ways: more candidates ran, more students voted and as a result, the election process was more representative of the student body. While we applaud these developments, there remain a number of aspects of this year’s election that must be addressed in order for UCS and UFB to adequately reflect the student body. Specifically, we find the recent changes to the elections code insufficient, reminders to vote lacking and, regrettably, the phrasing of the referendum inconsistent with standards set by polling experts. As students of the University, we want nothing more than for our student government to improve; it is in this earnest desire that we offer these critical appraisals and suggest potential remedies.

It is important to acknowledge the improvements of this year’s student government elections before focusing on the shortcomings that persist. Forty-four percent of students voted in this year’s election, a substantial increase from the 36 percent who voted in 2018, the 20 percent in 2017 and the 29 percent in 2016. This year’s elections also improved with regards to the number of candidates running for executive level positions. This year, three candidates ran for UCS president and two for vice president, while two candidates vied for UFB chair and three for vice chair. Fewer students have vied for these highly significant positions in the most recent past, and in some instances, like in 2017, some candidates ran unopposed. We are heartened by these improvements and see them as a step in the right direction toward enhancing democratic representation of the student body. Thanks to increased voter turnout, this year’s election process included greater student voice in the voting process; and with more candidates vying for these positions, the election highlighted a greater variety of interests, backgrounds and identities. We are hopeful that candidate and voter participation in our student government’s election process will continue to grow, thereby affording the elected representatives an increased sense of legitimacy on campus.

However, though UCS implemented a number of changes to the elections code before this year’s elections, its effectiveness at improving voting rates and the number of candidates vying for chair positions seem limited. Most notably, all four UCS chair positions were uncontested in this year’s election, signaling a decrease in competitiveness from three contested races in 2018. This unfortunate turn comes in spite of UCS’s effort to encourage students to run for UCS chair positions by decreasing the number of signatures required to declare candidacy from 200 to 100. Further, the other changes to the elections code — though important — were too limited in scope to provide widespread change. Permitting students on leave and abroad to vote was long overdue but is unlikely to generate, on its own, the significant voter turnout needed to make Brown student government elections more representative. Our institutional practices should yield voter turnout far above 44 percent.

Furthermore, we take issue with the wording of this year’s divest referendum, which failed to give students an opportunity to vote on an unbiased question. Most flagrantly, the question violated a key tenant of polling by containing a “double-barreled” question — requiring one answer to two separate questions. The resolution asks “should the Brown University administration divest all stocks, funds, endowment, and other monetary instruments from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine” and also asks if University administration should “establish a means of implementing financial transparency and student oversight of the University’s investments?” These questions are quite clearly distinct — one focuses on Palestinian human rights while the other asks about transparency — which makes the results difficult to assess and draw conclusions from, according to guidelines set by the Pew Research Center and many other groups. In addition, the referendum includes leading language; phrases such as “human rights abuses,” the “Israeli military occupation” and “violent acts” are clearly non-neutral and therefore can naturally lead respondents to a certain conclusion. As Survey Monkey writes, “Questions should never be worded in a way that’ll sway the reader to one side of the argument.” We recognize and appreciate UCS for asking students about divestment, but the inherent value of including the question was likely undermined by its suggestive language.

Looking forward, we believe UCS can implement changes to the elections code that would improve crucial aspects of its election process. To increase voter turnout, UCS should consider physical voting booths during ballot dates as an extra method of collecting votes. Carefully located booths — one in Faunce Arch, for example — could provide a visual reminder for students to vote. UCS should also increase the length of its election; this year’s election — from campaign announcements to final votes — spanned under two weeks. Extending the length of the election would allow candidates more opportunities to express their positions to voters and generate interest in the election.

Finally, UCS should consider further improvements to its moderating structure. While we believe UCS granting The Herald a moderating seat at this year’s candidate debate was a critical step toward a more impartial debate structure, we remain concerned that the current leaders of UCS continue to be moderators. As we wrote last year, though UCS executives are certainly well-intentioned, “the conflict of interest inherent to such an arrangement — even the most magnanimous of presidents have an incentive to implicitly support the candidate most likely to preserve their legacy — seriously jeopardizes the very purpose of a candidate debate.” Instead, a panel of student journalists from an array of student-led media sources should serve as moderators. This is not an extreme notion: despite certain dysfunctionalities of the U.S. elections process, the sitting president of the United States does not moderate the debate for their successors, but leaves it to journalists to question candidates under impartial scrutiny.

If UCS truly seeks to become more representative of the University’s student body, it should not be complacent with this year’s upticks and should continue to implement election reforms to increase voter turnout, breadth of candidacy and neutrality of ballot language. Perhaps then would more students be interested in their student government and its activity — a sentiment not reflected in the Herald’s 2019 poll, in which 49.9 percent of students polled had “no opinion” on the way UCS handles its job.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Grace Layer ’20 and Krista Stapleford ’21, and its members, Elisheva Goldberg ’22, Eduard Muñoz-Suñé ’20 and Riley Pestorius ’21. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.