Op-Ed: Campaign to Abstain Obscures Student Opinion

Opinion by and
April 7, 2011, 12:26 a.m.

While I well understand the principled stance taken by John Haskell in his Op-Ed of April 6, practical considerations compel me to state my reluctant opposition to it. It does not seem to me that adhering firmly to established moral principles will in this case necessarily lead to the best practical outcome, as Mr. Haskell himself would probably define it, this campaign week.

Today and tomorrow, the Stanford student body will vote upon, among other things, Measure A. Voters choosing to record a preference on Measure A will be given three options, as follows: a) I support the reinstatement of ROTC at Stanford University; b) I oppose the reinstatement of ROTC at Stanford University; c) I choose to abstain.

Recently, members of the Campaign to Abstain, Mr. Haskell among them, have urged opponents of ROTC’s return to choose option (c), rather than option (b). The rationale given for this argument is one of moral principle: that never, under any circumstances, should the natural or human rights of a minority group — in this case, Stanford’s transgender community — be subject to the caprice of popular plebiscite.

The normative argument is a bold one, and I will not venture so far as to pronounce upon its validity here. But questions of descriptive reality impel us to take into account considerations other than the purely moral. Whether we like it or not, Measure A is on the ballot. Let us consider what the empirical ramifications of that fact will be.

First, it seems clear that very few people who were previously determined to support the return of ROTC will change their minds as a result of the Campaign and instead vote to abstain. It is thus eminently likely that very nearly all the votes the Campaign will garner in support of option (c) will therefore have come at the expense of option (b).

Two problems follow from this assumption. First, students voting to “Abstain” rather than to “Oppose” can only harm, and cannot help, their side’s chances of carrying the day. And second, it will be impossible to discern between voters who abstain for reasons of apathy or indifference and voters who abstain for reasons of principle.

To address the first problem, let us assign hypothetical values to this very real situation. I do not think it inapposite to assume for purposes of argument that half of Stanford students support ROTC’s return and half oppose it. In a world sans option (c), then, the vote would look like this:

a. 50 percent Support

b. 50 percent Oppose

Depending on how successful the Campaign has been, however, we could instead expect numbers anywhere from

a. 50 percent Support

b. 40 percent Oppose

c. 10 percent Abstain


a. 50 percent Support

b. 10 percent Oppose

c. 40 percent Abstain

and anything in between. Given these numbers, it becomes clear that the only effect of swaying some voters from “Oppose” to “Abstain” will be to split the opposition, giving “Support” the clear plurality victory — and I think we can all agree that the latter two of these three scenarios appear rather a less forceful statement of Stanford’s opposition to ROTC’s return than the former.

Second, there will be no differentiation on the ballot between “I choose to abstain for reasons of principle” and “I choose to abstain because I have no opinion or I do not care one way or the other or I simply do not know.” All of these diverse options are covered by the capacious and frankly rather vague option (c), “I choose to abstain.” Given that the primary reason for Measure A’s existence is to inform the Faculty Senate of Stanford’s opinion on the potential return of ROTC, I think we can also all agree that a mass of undifferentiated and unclear “Abstain” votes will do little to accomplish that objective.

For the reasons stated above, I think that the Stanford community would do better to state its support of or opposition to ROTC’s return unequivocally and in clear terms. Doing so will be better for ROTC’s opponents, who will have a better chance of carrying the vote, and for both the Faculty Senate and our ROTC cadets, who will gain a more lucid understanding of student opinion.


Miles Unterreiner ‘12

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