Op-Ed: Ballot issues and the right to abstain

Opinion by Nik Marda
April 18, 2019, 1:57 a.m.

I voted in the recent ASSU election, and on many questions, the ballot prevented me from abstaining. For example, I only wanted to rank two of the Executive slates, but I was forced to rank all five. This led to my third, fourth and fifth choices defaulting to the ballot’s random ordering. On the annual grants, I had to choose either “yes” and “no” for organizations I barely recognized. That can’t be the best way to allocate thousands of dollars.

Just like voting on a paper ballot, voters should be allowed to leave any question blank. The ASSU electronic ballot can do this by adding an “abstain” option for every question.

The right to abstain is an important one, and its abridgment can change election results.

For some students, a vote is a meaningful endorsement. It is an expression of trust, borne out of careful appraisal of a candidate’s character and qualifications. This view has been expressed for centuries; President John Quincy Adams asked citizens to “always vote for principle, though you may vote alone” and multiple 2016 presidential candidates told us to “vote your conscience.” If Stanford students believe they cannot, in good faith, vote for a candidate or measure, they should be allowed to abstain. That belief shouldn’t preclude students from voting on the rest of the ballot.

Obviously, many students don’t attach such importance to their ASSU ballot. Instead, they vote to support a few specific candidates or measures, such as a friend’s Senate candidacy or a roommate’s musical group. These limited-issue voters should be allowed to simply cast votes in favor of their issues and be done. This leaves other decisions to the judgment of a more interested and informed populace.

By preventing abstention, it’s also possible to change election results. The recent race for ASSU Executive was decided by 19 votes. While unlikely, it’s possible there were just enough voters who unintentionally ranked Scott/Drummond above Hirota/Tuttle (because of the ballot’s random ordering) to have flipped the election. Also, some of the annual student fees might have failed if abstentions were permitted, as they did in previous elections that allowed abstentions.

There’s even an example of abstentions likely changing a result in the recent election; Constitutional Amendment Measure C was 0.6 percent short of the required 15 percent of the student body voting “yes”, but over 11 percent of the student body abstained. Without abstentions, this measure would’ve likely passed.

Supporters of certain annual student fees and constitutional amendments may be inclined to prevent abstentions to increase their chance of success. However, the right solution is lowering thresholds for passage, not killing abstentions. For example, the ASSU could reduce the required percentage of the student body voting “yes” to on Constitutional Amendments from 15 percent to 10 percent.

The next Elections Commissioner and Senate should work together to ensure the ASSU ballot empowers voters. Abstaining can be a thoughtful and logical choice, and it’s one that the ASSU should respect.

— Nik Marda ’21

Contact Nik Marda at nmarda ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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