Early last week, I sat in my first ASSU Senate meeting, which turned into a three-hour affair, and I got a look into student governance at Stanford. For the past two weeks, my team and I, political newbies, poured over a hundred hours into campaign season. Along the process, we learned a lot and were given a crash course in all things ASSU. It wasn’t always pretty.
Most people in our student body have a very transitory relationship with ASSU, SAL and the Registrar, only interacting with those offices on an annual basis when a group or organization tries to get funding, ask for an official transcript or pass an administrative procedure. In truth, those in ASSU Senate and related offices are strong, hardworking people who look to positively influence their school.
However, the system is, in many ways, frustrating. You can put everything into changing the system, but because of a jaded administration, a student body that is skeptical of all things ASSU and questionable rules, one must be incredibly deft and savvy to make any change happen. In an environment where joke slates amass hundreds of votes and a large number of students lack interest in or understanding of student government, the current system has not done enough to build credibility in elections nor inspire the average student to be invested in campus politics.
In light of several events highlighted by recent Stanford Daily articles, it appears there were two problems with the recent elections: voter disenfranchisement and campaign regulation. For each of these problems, there exist common-sense—if not necessarily simple—reforms that should be implemented to ensure a fairer and more representative election in future years. As a member of a slate that lost a narrow election, I am not writing this out of anger or bitterness, but rather out of a sincere desire to ensure that this cycle does not repeat and adversely impact candidates in the future.
Firstly, there is the issue of voter disenfranchisement. As much as the Elections Commission has been self-congratulatory in increasing overall voting rates (especially in the graduate student population), voting this year did not go off without a hitch. The ASSU elections commission confirms voting status through conferring with the Registrar, a seemingly transparent process. The problem is that the Registrar only used and continues to use winter quarter enrollment data to confirm voting status, thereby disenfranchising a substantial population of eligible voters, including myself, who were on leave and have come back to status.
Thus, a hypocrisy arises. While I was eligible to run for class president and devote countless hours to campaign in a school-sanctioned election, I, along with many friends, was ineligible to vote for the movement on which we worked, all because we were on a leave of absence a previous quarter. Moreover, all those who took winter quarter off were also deemed ineligible to have their voice heard regarding special fees, amendments, ASSU Exec, class president and Senate positions.
Furthermore, out of those deemed worthy of receiving a ballot, many ballots were lost in students’ junk/spam folders as the system transitioned towards a personalized ballot delivered through email, thus leaving many students—already reticent of taking the time to vote—unclear on where to find their ballot. I heard of at least five students who had this problem, and there were bound to be many more across classes and people I don’t know. I was ineligible to vote, so I could never see a ballot, but as I understand it, if a student had accidentally archived or trashed an email that looked like spam, they would have relinquished their chance to vote.
It was personally disappointing, backwards and sad to put so much time into a campaign to impact senior year and for fully registered students and friends to reach out to you, ready to vote, unable to do so because of a policy that discriminates against people who have chosen to take time off. No slate or student of Stanford should feel alienated or that their voice cannot be heard in a truly representative election. However, the fact that this voter disenfranchisement likely has occurred for several years prior to validation of ballots post-vote shows that nothing will change without pressure from those constituents unable to vote.
Now, the rationale for this voter policy makes sense to some degree. Elections are held in spring quarter, but are held too early for the Registrar to confirm enrollment in spring quarter; thus, ASSU and the Registrar use winter quarter enrollment data to verify enrollment. Additionally, the personalized email ballot increased graduate student turnout, crucially important to ensure funding for student organizations. However, all of these enhancements to the system are not truly effective unless they are accompanied by minor fixes as well. Simply saying that we don’t want to disenfranchise willing voters is useless unless students are given an opportunity to “prove” their eligibility. Ultimately, if a student is eligible to take classes or run for elected office, he or she should also be able to vote or prove their eligibility, whether through showing a form certifying tuition, class enrollment, housing or an active transcript as proof. This election offered no options to students in these more transitory states, and the election process needs to be reformed in future years to give all students a voice.
Lastly, this week, there have been allegations of campaigning misconduct, such as campaigning after the deadline, and the election for senior class presidents has yet to be certified as a result. As the rules currently stand, voting is on Thursday and Friday of Week 2, and campaigning must end after Tuesday at midnight. Inappropriate campaigning is defined as influencing someone’s vote after the campaigning deadline; however, candidates are allowed to encourage students to vote as long as they don’t specify or influence their vote, creating a blurred line which is only arbitrated by good will and semantics. As I can attest from these past two weeks, a message or email encouraging someone to vote can often influence a recipient simply because it came from a slate member. Allowing campaigning to continue until the closing of elections would be more realistic of conventional politics and also lead to a fairer, more ethical election free of campaigns competing to find a way to best encourage people to vote for them. Thus, allowing campaigning to continue until ballots close eliminates a potential rule violation, while also creating an environment that doesn’t reward those who can violate campaign rules or skirt the line.
Ultimately, without the universal ability to vote, we can’t have a free and fair election. Limiting voters makes it difficult to have a truly engaged student body, and eliminating students who are returning from time off jeopardizes the idea of a representative election. ASSU is making improvements in creating a fair voting process, but there remain policies that hold us back from having a truly representative and fully enfranchised population.
In future years, Stanford will thrive off of having student leaders that truly care for and represent all populations of the school. Without an election system that accounts for groups such as those who took time off or ensures and self-regulates campaigning laws, ASSU and Stanford will not be able to best attract students willing to serve their school nor ever truly invigorate a student body to vote. Allowing students a chance to prove their eligibility and allowing campaigning to continue through the voting period are two actionable goals that will help create a more fair, unbiased election in the future.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu.