Stanford’s Disastrous Electoral System

[![The system of election that Stanford uses has been discredited and abandoned across America and the world.](/content/images/electoral-system-1024x778.png)](/content/images/electoral-system.png)
The system of election that Stanford uses has been discredited and abandoned across America and the world.
What if I told that you that Stanford’s electoral system is used in noted liberal democracies like Syria, Laos, and Kuwait? What if I also told you that the NAACP considers our electoral system discriminatory? You would probably call me a liar on both counts, and you would be dead wrong.

The Stanford Review has revealed these astonishing facts before, but this point cannot be emphasized enough: Stanford uses an electoral system for its student elections, known as plurality at-large voting or the block vote, that deliberately results in landslides, excluding minority voices by severely limiting their representation.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance explains that “The Block Vote is common in countries with weak or non-existent political parties.” It lists the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Guernsey, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, the Maldives, Palestine, Syria, Tonga and Tuvalu as users. Jordan, Mongolia, the Philippines and Thailand all previously employed block voting, but the voting systems were “changed in all these countries as a result of unease with the results it produced.” That is, even flawed democracies (Mongolia and Philippines), hybrid regimes (Thailand) and authoritarian regimes (Jordan) could not stomach the same system Stanford uses because of its iniquities.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund writes that “Fewer and fewer districts still practice at-large voting. That is because courts and other decision-makers long have recognized that discriminatory methods of election, like at-large voting, enhance the discrimination that communities of color experience…” Syria uses it for exactly that reason – to help it run sham elections that produce landslides for the National Progressive Front’s slate of candidates and exclude voices it does not want to hear.

Stanford’s version of this system works like this: every voter gets to vote for up to 15 different candidates to fill the 15 seats of the undergraduate senate, 3 of which are reserved for rising juniors or above. Moreover, the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC), endorses 10 or so candidates, mandating that they sign a contract to uphold SOCC principles, and effectively forms a slate for which its members and supporters can vote.

If just 51% vote for every candidate on one slate, then voilà, those candidates are the only ones elected. In this ultimate winner-take-all system, 51% of voters can select 100% of the undergraduate senate, theoretically leaving the other 49% of voters with no representation at all. The Electoral Reform Society writes that the block vote  “…is very disproportional and enables the strongest party with a comfortable or narrow majority to take all the seats in the constituency. Mauritius exemplified the system’s weakness in 1982 and 1995, when one slate of candidates won every seat in the legislature with only 64% and 65% of the vote in respective years. Even Wikipedia will tell you that “the usual result is that the largest single group wins every seat by electing a slate of candidates, resulting in a landslide.” The disproportionality of the system is both a matter of common knowledge and common sense.

The standard first-past-the-post (FPTP) system also contains some of these issues, but Stanford’s electoral system “exaggerates the disproportionality” of FPTP, because it has only only one district for the whole campus. In small American cities, the system manifests itself, deliberately or otherwise, with whites excluding black and Latino voters from gaining representation. Federal courts have struck down numerous at-large systems of voting in US municipalities, largely due to the advocacy of the NAACP and other civil rights groups. Indeed, the NAACP maintains that “The Voting Rights Act forbids the use of any electoral scheme, such as the at-large method of election, that submerges the votes of people of color in elections that a white majority of voters control.”

At Stanford, we see this result all the time, but with a twist. It is the Students of Color Coalition that benefits from the unfair scheme, dominating elections and marginalizing minority (in every sense except racial) voices. In the last election SOCC was able to push most of its slate into office, with nine representatives elected out of 13 endorsed. This was an astonishing feat, as the election took place against a backdrop of allegations of discrimination and anti-semitism against SOCC that made international news. This outcome was surely made possible only by our twisted electoral system that overrepresents majority voices. The previous year, without New York Times articles against it, SOCC elected nine out of its slate of 10 endorsed candidates, again dominating the undergraduate senate. The 10th candidate was a write-in and thus had little chance of winning, but still garnered 536 votes, a strong showing.

Even though our current system produces results favorable to candidates representing racial minorities at Stanford, the reasons why the NAACP Legal Defence Fund calls it discriminatory and illegal, and why the Syrian government calls it a true form of democratic expression, have not gone away. The block vote effectively churns out one-party legislatures when candidate are organized into slates.

For students astonished by undergraduate senate decisions like the reversal on divestment from Israel (championed by SOCC member groups), look no further than the electoral system that not-so-curiously produces decisive SOCC victories. Plurality at-large systems produce winner take-all landslides that do not represent Stanford students fairly, especially in light of our middling voter turnout (55% in all, and only 29% of seniors and co-terms).

As a university, we should strive for a system of real representation that requires that crucial democratic skill, compromise, from our legislative bodies.

Edit: This article has been corrected to reflect that 3 Senate spots are reserved for rising juniors or above.

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