On the evening of March 22, Elections Board Chairs Katherine Barry ’19 and Kathryn Stack ’19 announced the results of the 2018 elections for the Undergraduate Council of Students and the Undergraduate Finance Board. Shanzé Tahir ’19 won the UCS presidency, with 82 percent of the vote; Lisa Schold ’19 accrued 72 percent to secure the UFB chairpersonship; and 81 percent of voters supported the #FullDisclosure moment. In some ways, this year’s elections — which saw 34 percent turnout for UCS presidential elections and only two uncontested races across both UCS and UFB — were vastly more competitive than last year’s, when candidates for five positions went unchallenged and the voter turnout rate for the whole election barely exceeded 20 percent. Still, while we appreciate the progress made, heartily congratulate the victors and believe in their capacity to enact positive change, we recognize that there is work to be done before the elections process — and student government at Brown, more broadly — becomes fully representative of and accountable to the student body. In particular, we express profound disappointment with the low voter turnout rate for UFB races, the hurried pace of the elections and the moderation of the candidate debate.
A high voter turnout is important to ensure the representativeness of a democratic system, as a substantial body of research has confirmed. Unfortunately, given a voter turnout rate of 24 percent in the 2018 UFB chairperson elections — just four percentage points higher than last year’s turnout — student government at Brown is far from fully representative. (This year’s UFB vice chairperson election went uncontested.) Though the blame for low voter turnout cannot be placed exclusively on the shoulders of officeholders — the onus is also on students to actually vote — it is certainly elected leaders’ responsibility to reach out to the community, encourage students to vote and generate enthusiasm around student government at Brown. Not only does a low voter turnout rate undermine the perceived legitimacy of the elected students, it also reflects the sad reality that a considerable proportion of the student body feels unmotivated to vote and uninterested in student government, an endeavor that continues to have significant influence on the everyday lives of students.
One possible way to increase voter turnout in the future might be to extend the timeframe of the elections. According to UCS rules, candidates were only permitted to declare their candidacies this election cycle after a meeting on March 14. The candidate debate occurred just four days later, on March 18; the voting period ended four days after that, on March 22. In total, the election lasted about eight days — giving candidates and voters a little over a week to publicize their agendas and assess those agendas, respectively. This is not nearly enough time for the community to engage in sustained, enriching discussions about the direction of Brown, campus life and expectations of student government.
Another concerning part of the elections process was the fact that the sitting UCS president, Chelse-Amoy Steele ’18, and the sitting UFB chairperson, Yuzuka Akasaka ’18, served as two of the moderators of the candidate debate. In a statement published in the comment section of the The Herald, Steele and Akasaka wrote, “All questions for candidates were drafted by (us) with attention to their platforms. As the representatives of the two organizations participating in the debate and the authors of the questions, our presence as moderators was required.”
While certainly well-intentioned, the justification issued by Steele and Akasaka does not take into account the role of media as watchdogs in a self-governing society. Imagine, for a moment, if a sitting president of the United States were to moderate a debate between two aspiring candidates, instead of a journalist. 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.
In any democratic system, public accountability is paramount, and all members of student government, current and aspiring, should be held accountable to the entire student body. A simple alternative is to ask members of student-led media organizations to moderate the debate and question the candidates, as has been done in the past. Though we understand concerns about extending moderating privileges to a single publication, a committee of student journalists — selected from a variety of organizations and mediums — could place candidates under more objective scrutiny.
At the end of the day, we draw attention to these electoral shortcomings because we firmly believe that student government is a serious and worthwhile exercise, with important implications for student life, administrative policy and the long-term evolution of the University. The president of UCS, for example, has the power to facilitate comprehensive reforms and set the cultural tone of campus, while UFB can disperse and withhold funds essential to the operation of most student organizations. Student government, in the larger scheme of things, also has immense utility as an educational experience, offering students crucial instruction in the practice of self-determination and deliberative democracy — endeavors that have taken on added significance in the current political climate. In light of these truths, we hope that the newest slate of UCS and UFB leaders work to enhance the elections process going forward.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19, Mili Mitra ’18, Rhaime Kim ’ 20 and Grace Layer ’20. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.
A previous version of this editorial stated that Shanzé Tahir ’19 won the UCS presidency with 85 percent of the vote. In fact, she won with 82 percent of the vote. The Herald regrets the error.