Recent elections left no doubt that the ASSU’s electoral system needs fixing. 39 candidates ran for 15 at-large seats on the Undergraduate Senate. Successful candidates had to run massive media campaigns. During campaign week, nearly every square inch of bulletin boards and bathroom stalls were peppered with flyers advertising candidates. Facebook advertisements were dominated by the election. Links to YouTube videos and endorsements from dozens of student groups flew across email and list-servs.
The goal of all this electioneering was merely to establish name recognition and product differentiation in a crowded field. Many successful candidates punned on their names: Luukas Ilves’ “the extra ‘u’ is for you”, or Eugene Nho’s “Vote yes for Nho.” Waddie Crazyhorse was spared this indignity – his name alone grabbed attention.
In the midst of this rigmarole, nearly every candidate made similar promises. Reform the OSA, make the ASSU more transparent and student-friendly, advocate for a greener Stanford, etc… The format of a one-week electioneering period did not allow us to distinguish between who had realistic proposals and the ability to carry them out, and who was simply a good campaigner. Indeed, many candidates with substantive policy proposals readily admitted they ran their campaigns purely as a marketing fluff, without mentioning their specific proposals, because this was the only way they could win office.
Stanford students deserve elections with serious debate on policies that offers students a choice between clear alternatives. One proposal does promise to address these ills within the framework of our current elections rules: a multi-party system.
Political parties would introduce welcome electoral competition. Given limited time and limited funding, even Senators with similar agendas will have different priorities. Should the ASSU, for example, dedicate more funding to arts groups or providing an airport shuttle? Should the Senate’s first advocacy priority be to moderate OSA party regulations or push for a greener Stanford. These tradeoffs represent policy priorities, priorities over which people can disagree. ASSU elections in which parties present comprehensive platforms (and in which there are few enough distinct platforms that voters can actually compare) would allow voters to chose between competing coherent visions of what our government should be doing.
The presence of parties would also make it much easier to distinguish between candidates. Through party affiliation, voters would have a good idea of a candidate’s priorities and, because they would be exposed to two, three or four, extensive platforms, instead of 40 slogans, students could put more thought into their electoral decisions.
A party system would also create an atmosphere in which parties care more about the next election, which would actually be a good thing. ASSU politicians are not particularly accountable to voters, since few serve more than one term. Once elected, all that keeps the average ASSU politician dedicated is a general sense of obligation. But parties do not go away after a year, and would exert significant pressure on their student-politicians to deliver measurable results, since the parties need to present concrete achievements to students when they ask for their votes for the next year’s candidates.
One of the facets of student government mostly ignored by our current election dynamics is competency. Many of the student issues the ASSU takes up are entirely non-partisan and un-divisive. Administration transparency or ASSU-provided services to students, both concerns taken up by the senate, require consistent advocacy, organizational savvy, and administrative ability. Yet the electoral system makes it difficult to differentiate candidates on these metrics. A candidate who lists his accomplishments and qualifications on campaign materials will likely come off as haughty and arrogant (“toolish”). Parties, because of their vested interests in tangible results, have a strong incentive to select for competency in choosing candidates.
One of the attractions of a party system now, on this campus, is the ease with which we could introduce it. A party system would require no changes to the ASSU constitution or by-laws – candidates and parties would merely announce their slates, and candidates would mention their party allegiance in their ballot statement and ads. The elections commission might need to slightly modify campaigning policies, but this would be trivial. As is the case in the US Constitution, parties require no explicit legislation in the constitution – they can simply come to exist within the current framework.
The current political situation on campus would also offer fertile ground for a party system. At Berkeley, two prominent parties, CalSERVE and Student Action, have dominated the political landscape for the last decade. CalSERVE, which grew out of the movement to divest funds from South Africa, lists among its core values representing all under-represented groups, progressivism, “fighting the isms”, and institutionalizing fairness and equality. Student Action is a pragmatic alliance that eschews ideology in favor of a coalition groups who want to focus on student-body specific issues, though it has recently come under fire for its machine politics.
I do not mean to suggest that parties are the sole solution to the problems of Stanford’s political system. Indeed, a party system does bring with it several potential pitfalls, both of which are evident at Cal. First, there is a risk of parties developing into political machines – as electoral success becomes regular and customary, parties grow more ossified and corrupt, and politicians come to care more about that party’s interests than students’. Second, a party system runs the risk of devolving into partisan rancor. At Berkeley, some complain that elections have become so adversarial that students have lost any measure of civility. Stanford politics, in contrast, have a tradition of civility and cooperation. Stanford students running against each other for office will still joke with each other and engage in conversation. (Opposing sides in Berkeley elections throw eggs). Whatever their disagreements, once in office Stanford politicians realize they have a common goal – serving students – and put aside any unnecessary partisan rancor. Too strong a party system could threaten that.
On balance, the case for parties is not overwhelming. Nevertheless, any discussion of how to improve elections at Stanford, and to re-inject ASSU politics with some real debate and discussion, needs to start with a recognition of the benefits parties can bring, and needs to offer a clear alternative to a party-based solution.