By Jessica Zhu
The Freshmen Senators Act (FSA), which would have added a fall election cycle to allow frosh to run for the Undergraduate Senate, was not ratified in this year’s Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) elections. It was one of seven constitutional amendments to be rejected by voters in the spring election. Though all measures except the FSA cleared the two-thirds margin to be ratified, voters did not meet a 15% quorum of both undergraduate and graduate students.
ASSU Elections Commissioner Edwin Ong ’23 said that although there have been similar issues in the past with amendments not passing due to low graduate student engagement, this year was particularly difficult. The Graduate Student Council has struggled with visibility and participation, and only between 5 and 7% of graduate students voted on the general constitutional amendments.
“The pandemic is definitely a factor,” Ong said. “[Lower graduate voter turnout] is not that surprising considering a lot of these master’s students are only here for one or two years, and if VSOs [voluntary student organizations] have no in-person, no on-campus programming, then why would they vote?”
He continued that he didn’t think that the 15% threshold should be lowered to make amendments easier to pass, since “you should need a lot of buy-in to amend the Constitution.” Instead, he advocated for more efforts to increase graduate voter turnout, saying that “it’s a work in progress.”
For Graduate Student Council (GSC) elect Tim Vrakas ’21, who authored the single transferable vote amendment, the results also reflected graduate students’ low interest in student government.
“Graduate students’ priorities are structured around research, definitely,” he said, adding that he is “thinking about how to make the GSC more appealing and interesting” because graduate students have a “productive place in the ASSU.”
Undergraduate constitutional amendments
The Freshman Senators Act (FSA), which generated controversy since it was proposed, received 53.66% of votes, making it the only proposed amendment that didn’t receive enough votes to pass even if a quorum had been met. Undergraduate senators and Frosh Council members have disagreed on whether the bill would ameliorate frosh representation in the ASSU or face significant logistical barriers.
Amira Dehmani ’24, who co-authored the bill with Jack Scala ’24, said that she and Scala had felt “unheard” during Frosh Council and that there was a disconnect between them and the administration.
“We felt like the ASSU on top of that wasn’t really thinking about the freshmen and the unique challenges that freshmen face, especially right now in the pandemic,” Dehmani said, adding that many of Stanford’s peer institutions, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale all include frosh in their student government.
Dehmani said that even though the FSA did not pass, she is still glad that it “opened a lot of people’s eyes and is starting this conversation of how can we actually increase freshmen representation in the Senate.”
Amendment B: “Undergraduate Senate Elections by Single Transferable Vote” would have changed the voting system for undergraduate senators to increase proportional representation and encourage candidates to appeal to wider coalitions of students. Modeled off of the ranked-choice voting system that is used by numerous states and countries, the amendment would have students rank their preferred candidates on their ballots. If an individual’s first choice candidate did not get enough support to win a seat, their vote would be transferred to their second or third preference.
Vrakas, the member of the ASSU Constitutional Review Committee who authored the amendment, said that “existing research shows that single transferable vote is more proportional and more representative and tends to produce better results that satisfy more voters.”
Despite getting 83% support, the amendment did not meet the 15% quorum needed to pass. Vrakas said that although he is graduating this year, he hopes that other members of the committee will “revise [it] further and take another stab at it next year.”
General constitutional amendments
Amendment A:”Furthering Ethical Investment” would have added a series of questions to the ballot that asks students about their ethical investment priorities. Students would be requested to rank various causes such as “divestment from fossil fuels” and “divestment from private prisons” so that investment decisions could align more closely with the student body’s priorities.
According to co-author of the amendment Jonathan Lipman ’21, the three main motives behind the amendment were to implement a more regular check-in with the student body about their ethical values, to get feedback from a broader population than the current focus groups and to “encourage people to go educate themselves about these issues and to look up, well, why do people want to divest from some of these areas.”
Lipman added that in the past, students have called for divesting from companies that work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and fossil fuel companies, among others.
Amendment C: “Gender Neutral Language Amendment” would have changed the text of the ASSU Constitution to remove gendered language, including all singular pronouns. It would have replaced phrases such as “she/he” and “her/his” with gender-neutral references such as “that member(’s)” and “that person(’s).”
The amendment was the second proposed by the ASSU Constitutional Review Committee. Viktor Krapivin, the committee’s co-chair and an applied physics Ph.D. student, said that instead of replacing all gendered pronouns with variations of “they,” the committee decided to take out singular pronouns entirely to be more inclusive of individuals who don’t use they/them pronouns either.
Amendment D: “2021 Financial Clarification and Engagement Amendment” would have edited the language describing the financial system in the ASSU Constitution to be more clear. According to the text of the bill, the current language is often unclear and outdated, making it difficult for legislative bodies to understand how the financial system operates.
The amendment would not have broadly changed how the system works; it would only edit the Constitution to clarify term definitions and replace ambiguous language. It would also require that the Financial Manager’s office provide regular reports to the legislative bodies.
Similarly, Amendment E: “Judicial Branch Article Amendment” also would have edited the Constitution to clarify the jurisdiction and operations of the Constitutional Council, a body of ASSU president-appointed councilors that reviews constitutional challenges to actions by the elected branches of the ASSU.
The amendment also would not have substantially changed the council’s structure, but only would update the Constitution’s language to encourage wider use of the council, which has historically been underused due to a lack of institutional knowledge, according to the text of the bill.
Constitutional Council Co-Chair Sherwin Lai ’24 said that he originally hoped the amendment would lead to more use of the council. “There have been disputes that would have been better brought to the Constitutional Council rather than just be sorted out through the political process, especially since we look at things from like a neutral independent constitutional perspective, not whether something is just like politically popular,” he said.
The final proposed amendment, Amendment F: “Non-Discrimination Statement,” would have added a section to the ASSU Constitution that explicitly prohibits discrimination. Though that language already exists in the ASSU Joint Bylaws, passing the amendment would have strengthened the prohibition’s effect, according to its text.