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A Few New Facts, A Few New Allegations, and What Passes for Democracy In Our Student Senate

With regards to the Student Senate Election controversy I blogged about a few days ago, a few clarifications, new facts, and announcements have come out that deserve comment. First of all, I was contacted by the Columbia ACS folks and given a bit of information so as to reconcile my comments with their announcement about the elections. Essentially, they've told me that the slate of candidates was mailed to their listserv by a board member, albeit with a large disclaimer that it was not official ACS policy. Nonetheless, the listserv was supposed to be for board members on ACS matters only, and thus the board member involved has been sanctioned. [1]

[Since this is very "inside baseball" for CLS, I'm putting the rest of the article, including a comment policy, below the fold. Sorry to bore my other readers.]

Meanwhile, the Petition Signatures have been notable for three things. First of all, those leaving "non-signatures" (i.e. those protesting the petition) share the slate's promulgator's fondness for anonymity. (So do some of the supporters.) Second, the same protestors have a very expansive opinion of the proper use of the term "sour grapes." [2]. Finally, I note with interest the following left by a frequent commentor on this site:

I was encouraged to vote for a subset of the write-ins on the basis they were excluded by "bureaucratic mistakes." It appears now that that was a lie. I don't much care about Student Senate, but I do think there is no place for subterfuge in the community. But the high-minded "democracy worked" comments below are amusingly silly, and unsurprisingly anonymous.

Indeed. Between the anonymity of the "slatists" and the anonymity of their supporters, one begins to wonder if there's anyone among them not afraid of their own name. But is there place for subterfuge in our student community?

Well, it seems so. The Student Senate sent out its final decision just after midnight Sunday night, complete with a statement from the President. (If it ever shows up on the web, I'll put a link up.) The latter mostly pleads for an end to the acrimony and for all of us to rally in support of the new Senators. The former contains a formal statement that all procedures were followed and the election was legitimate.

The argument of the Election Committee shows a respect for process that borders upon a beautiful textualism: all procedures were followed to the letter, and the rules were not broken.

Candidates wishing to appear on the ballot submitted their materials to the Election Commission by the specified deadline. In response, the Election Commission posted their candidacy statements on the Student Senate bulletin board and on the Student Senate website. These privileges were rightfully reserved for those candidates who submitted timely nominations. No other candidates appeared on the ballot, the bulletin board, or the website.

The Senate Constitution provides the option for write-in candidacy. Such candidates do not and did not appear on any Senate election materials, including the ballot. To cast a vote for such a candidate, a voter must write that candidate's name on the ballot. A write-in vote is counted as one of the 15 potential votes an elector may cast. Individual students presented identification to the poll monitors who gave them ballots on which they selected the candidates they best felt would represent them on Student Senate. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that appearance on the ballot guarantees election as any student could successfully write on.

Fair enough, but that's an impoverished view of democracy, and not enough to give an election a feeling of legitimacy. The purpose of a ballot is not merely to bless those who conform to a set of protocols with some free advertising. It also sends a signal to the electorate about what is actually being contested, thus framing the debate and setting expectations. A reasonably functioning democracy should encourage candidates to get on the ballot and reserve write-ins for exceptional circumstances.

Of course, our voting rules are not particularly complex or robust, especially in comparison to either shareholder proxy rules or the fiendish federal election rules. This is both because the stakes are not as great, and because we are supposed to be a group of students dedicated to high ethical standards. This makes the President's reminder that "we are all colleagues" particularly ironic: given that this faceless cabal of "student leaders" showed no interest in soliciting my vote, nor any interest in treating much of the university as colleagues prior to the election, why should we be surprised if they receive similar respect afterwards? Perhaps some would say that running a slate of candidates without revealing the organizers, or running said slate only to select groups of students, represents the highest ethical standards of candidates in an election. Me, I'll grant you it fits to the rules.

In this case, a group still too... shy, perhaps?... to name itself put forward a slate of candidates, and instead of campaigning to the class as a whole publicized its existence to a selection of students, in at least one case through misuse of a listserv. [3] Despite the present President's plea ("I respectfully request those who are challenging the legitimacy of the new Senate to take a different approach."), it is certainly proper--and yes, legitimate--to question whether we wish to approve such tactics.

Don't get me wrong: there is a certain Machiavellian beauty to what the Slaters have achieved, and it's in my nature to admire the coupling of such skullduggery with a clever use of information technology. Many compliments are due to the organizers of this strategem, whoever they may be. Nevertheless, I wouldn't dine with them, not only because I have a preference for dining with gentlemen, but because I'd be worried about what they might put in the soup.

Important Note on Comments: I don't have a moderated comment system, so I'm not opening this post up for comments in the normal method. If you wish to leave a comment, please email me (tidying up the mail address), and I will copy the comment into this post. Two rules: no anonymous messages will be posted, and nothing slanderous. I reserve the right not to post it, too.

[Note: Publication date on this entry has been changed. I wrote it on April 4th, but didn't publish it until the 5th. I'm thus changing the date listed to the latter.]

[1]: The word used was "chewed out," for what it's worth.

[2]: "Sour grapes" is generally a reference to Aesop's fables. See here. One could lay an accusation of "sour grapes" upon a candidate if they said, "The Student Senate isn't worth that much anyway." This is pointed out by one of the petitioners.

[3]: It is impossible for me to say whether the officer abusing a listserv was a promulgator of the slate or merely a promoter of it. One of the frustrations of anonymity is that it makes accountability quite difficult.


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In my view there are no communities without subterfuge, only those in which the subterfuge is covert. Whenever one sees a strategy like this being used visibly, it's worth taking a moment to consider that - like an iceberg - 9/10 of the moves people make are invisible.

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