The election that took place almost three weeks ago marks the second year in a row that the student body has participated en masse in College Council (CC) affairs.
The secret to this increase in participation? Tying CC elections – which often go uncontested and consequently remain unexciting – to referendums about divestment and the Honor Code. Campaigners needed not only to convince students to vote “yes,” but also to convince them to vote at all. Both years I have been impressed by students’ capacity to whip their peers into caring enough about campus politics to bother voting.
Because of this, I was a little shocked when I read last week’s Record article, “CC amends voting bylaws.” Nestled between larger news pieces, it describes the amendments to change the voting system, approved on March 2 by a transitional meeting of the Council. Ryan Kelley ’19 writes, “92 students who declined to vote on the 8+4 resolution were counted as abstaining votes to achieve the two-thirds quorum.” In essence, upon realizing that the Honor resolution was not going to pass for lack of a quorum, the Election Supervisory Committee (ESC) changed the procedure defining that quorum, effectively pushing the resolution through. Independent of one’s thoughts on either the resolution or the amendment, this is an overstep that sets a precedent for elected officials to change the rules of the game after the game has already been played.
I first assumed – wrongly – that this amendment was one of the two that CC had proposed in the elections the week before. At the time, I was rather surprised by the inclusion of referendums that seemed to be coming out of left-field, without having been publicized or discussed in the days leading up to the election. More than that, the motion referred back to specific sections of the CC Constitution that I was too lazy to look up. As a result, I had no idea what the amendment would actually be doing, and abstained. When the results came out I was a little bemused by the fact that 59 percent of voters were in favor, as this meant that either a majority blindly voted yes or – equally surprising – actually put in the effort to become informed on the topic. As it turns out, the amendment in question is titled “Constitutional Amendment on Vice President for Communications and Parliamentarian Positions” and likely irrelevant to issues of quorum and absenteeism.
My curiosity having been spiked, I began to explore the CC website for the contents of this amendment, and for the process that led to the voting amendment. In theory, the website is a paragon of transparency – it includes the minutes from all of its previous meetings and the agenda for the next. But the bylaws were last amended on Feb. 24, 2015. Besides two documents that are labeled 01/16 (though the header on the document itself lists 2015), minutes have not been posted since early March 2015. As such, I could find no record of the amendment that changed voting bylaws.
Still seeking answers, I headed next to office hours, another great idea defanged by lack of implementation. It took me four repeat visits until I finally met a polite CC representative, who claimed to be unaware of any office hours that day and attributed the year’s worth of missing data to CC’s recent transition to a new website and to coding errors.
Because it has proven remarkably difficult for me to find the amended bylaws, I’ve looked to precedent. It is actually somewhat surprising that CC talks of quorums in this case, as they are usually applied as “the minimum number of members who must be present at the meetings of a deliberative assembly for business to be legally transacted,” according to Robert’s Rules of Order, the only recognized guide to parliamentary procedure. Thus a quorum is a useful concept when talking about CC meetings – but in a campus-wide election, an easier way to ensure that the vote is actually representative of the student body could simply be to require that a majority of the student body, not of participants, vote “yes.” (By this metric, the 8+4 resolution, with over 54 percent of the vote, would still have passed.)
For the amendment itself, there is conflicting precedent. The Rules of Order state that “the quorum refers to the number of such members present, not the number actually voting on a particular question.” The Speaker of the House of the 51st Congress, Thomas Reed, set a similar precedent by ending the disappearing quorum and effectively ensuring that abstaining votes would count in a quorum. But the Rules also state that “each segment of a ballot is treated as if it were a separate ballot” – meaning that there is no such thing as a “larger ballot.” No assumptions can be made about how many people declined to vote on the issue instead of how many simply exited the page before participating in all the polls. In that latter case, the voter was not really “present.”
I don’t want to debate whether or not the amendment is valid – after all, it was duly approved by CC. What is disturbing is that it was meant to apply retroactively. Even the election results themselves list only 1315 total votes, and make no mention of the 174 people who allegedly declined to vote on only this issue. Instead, when CC realized that a resolution towards which they were biased might not pass, they changed the rules. This implies a breach of the impartiality to which the ESC should hold itself and a breach of the trust we set in student government. I, for one, have lost that trust.
Jacques Guyot ’17 is a chemistry major from White Plains, N.Y. He lives in Bryant House.