Despite the similarity in name, Stanford’s Undergraduate Senate is not a perfect parallel to the United States Senate. Like the U.S. Senate, students are endorsed by certain political organizations and supposedly represent their interests. But unlike the actual Senate, they aren’t tied to specific locations. This approach raises a few problems. For one, students may find it difficult to contact a senator, either because they don’t know the senator personally or because they don’t belong to clubs that endorse candidates. As a result, they find themselves excluded from the political process, unable to influence a candidate’s platform or interact with Senators.
The Senate’s decisions could still affect a non-political group as much as one centered around a political cause. For example, it would be meaningless for a club like Flicks to endorse a candidate, but the Senate still controls Flick’s funding and affects them equally. This means that even if you may not seem to care about ASSU politics, you still derive the same utility from the Senate’s decisions. Understanding how Senators reach their decisions to vote is an important first step as you determine who to vote for next week.
It is difficult to guess how candidates will vote on an issue in the first place. While many platforms emphasize improving mental health and happiness, they do not and cannot include every conceivable issue a senator may face while in office. This makes it impossible to have a holistic view of a candidate, which is essential for representation in a system where Senators can only hold a maximum of three terms but usually only run for one. If Senators do not have a strong check against this from reelection, it becomes easy to deviate.
The biggest question of all is how Senators are supposed to vote: should they vote for what they think is the best policy, or for what they think best represents the student population’s opinion? If undergraduates elect Senators so they can decide for us, why do we have a system where undergraduates participate in referenda on divisive issues like SAFE reform or special fee increases? Stanford’s entire political system, ranging from the endorsement process to referenda, suggests that Senators are expected to vote to represent what students want.
It seems clear that the Senate should not vote based solely off of what they think is best; the opinions of Stanford students should have a prominent role. But problems with Senators acting as a mouthpiece for student opinion are also clear. Only undergraduates who are politically active voice their opinions on corrosive campus issues and influence Senators. This system opposes the purpose of the Senate because it does not give a voice to those who have opinions but are either unwilling to attend town halls or who have no direct lines to their representatives. Arguments should be targeted towards changing the minds of the public at large, and not the small panel that might finally vote on the issue. Public debates, clear outlines of positions that are widely available, and a dramatic change in the political atmosphere would all accomplish this. When students feel they’ll actually be heard, they’re more likely to be involved in this process.
When campus opinion is unclear, the best poll of all is a referendum. It would be ridiculous for every issue, but the approach makes sense for the few key issues on campus that occur every quarter. Last Spring, the ballot featured funding reform and an environmental divestment resolution. These are issues that were rightfully brought to student opinion because they both have impacts on the lives of everyone, whether it’s through the clubs they’re involved in or the causes they fight for. This year, there was no definitive assessment of campus opinion on divestment, and the issue should have gone to referendum. It makes sense for the Senate to streamline funding policies, collaborate with community groups, and increase alumni involvement because these issues are best handled by a small task force, isolated from the polls. These issues would be difficult for each undergraduate to research, and would require polling that would be too frequent.
Stanford students are clearly qualified to vote. With only a few issues on the ballot, it’s easy to become educated about what they are, what impacts they might have, and what the arguments surrounding them are. And even if individuals don’t take the time to become informed on their own, they’ll be exposed to these opinions through a campus dialogue which we’ve all seen, both online and offline.
So what should you think about when voting? You may still want to pick the candidate who aligns best with your interests, which is your right as a voter. But what’s more important and central to the concept of the democracy we have at Stanford is to select someone who will also listen to those that they represent and let them be heard, whether it’s at the ballot box or a Senate meeting. The Senate represents more than a subset of Stanford. They represent all of us.