In the 2008-2009 Senate term, there were seven Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) Senators, seven Students for a Better Stanford (SBS) Senators, and one independent (an incumbent, no less). This term, there are ten SOCC Senators, four Students United Now (SUN) Senators, and one independent (who, not coincidentally, was 15th). If I were a betting man, I would guess that next year’s elections will show a similar result. The independent is a dying (or at least struggling) breed in the Stanford Undergraduate Senate.
What can be done to reverse this trend? One answer would be to ban endorsements, but this is heavy-handed, tramples free speech concerns, and would likely prove moderately ineffective, as endorsing organizations still unofficially supported different candidates. Another answer is to heavily enforce flyer limitations, insisting that any flyer that features a candidates name, even if sponsored by a coalition, counts against that candidates flyer limits, which, in conjunction with a low ceiling number of flyers could drastically reduce group flyering. However, given that campaigns have now moved increasingly online and even towards phone banking, if rumors are to be believed, this approach, too, would likely fall short (not to mention the limited ability of the Elections Commission to enforce such regulations).
What can we do instead?
My answer, simply, is to reduce the number of votes that each student is allowed to have. Currently, each student has 15 votes, corresponding to 15 Senate seats. This means that an endorsing group can endorse up to that many candidates, limited only by its ability to effectively advocate for all of its endorsees and by the candidate pool itself (if Colleges Against Cancer, for example, wishes to endorse six candidates, but finds only three that are sufficiently anti-cancer, it has little choice but to limit itself to three). In my experience, no group has gone so far as to endorse 15 candidates (although some may have, before my time), but in this past election cycle, both SOCC and SUN endorsed 12 candidates, and in last election cycle, SOCC and SBS did the same. Given that most decisions in the Senate are by majority (some by 2/3) vote, that’s plenty enough to assemble a strong faction inside the Senate.
If we cut the number of votes that each student has to seven, then each faction would only be able to run that many candidates, at least without risking disaster (I’ll cover that in further detail below). Having reduced the number of candidates that each side can run to less than a majority, it would become more important for the candidates on each side to work together in the Senate and it would embolden independents to attempt a run, despite lacking an endorsement.
Could this backfire? Yes, very much so. Now that each coalition is running only seven candidates, they will likely increase their efforts to get those candidates elected. Additionally, if they can already command the support of a certain number of voters who will always vote the “party line,” then this could lead to an effort to outmaneuver the voting system. An organized group could divide its supporters among its preferred candidates, managing to elect more than seven of them. However, this raises the risk of seriously backfiring. For example, in the most recent election, in which SOCC had a landslide victory, if they were to split their supporters among the candidates (let’s assume that ~400 people voted down the line for SOCC, which doesn’t seem too unreasonable), then each SOCC candidate would lose approximately 200 votes. If that occurred (holding, for argument’s sake the vote totals of the other candidates constant, which clearly would not be the case, but, for example, SEx would have been unaffected and we’ll imagine that SUN ran its most vote-getting candidates), then SOCC would have won only 8 seats, which is still better than the otherwise expected 7, but far from their dominating 12 seat performance otherwise. Instead, an additional SUN Senator and 2 SEx Senators would have joined the Senate. Having the representation of two SEx Senators would have brought a totally new viewpoint to the table and would have encouraged more interparty collaboration.
Alternatively, this system could even almost lock out independents because they might have been living off of the fact that they can grab a few extra votes out of the 15 that each voter is allowed to cast. I’m not sure whether this is an accurate concern or not. In 2010, 3,872 undergraduate voters cast a total of 23,992 official votes (not write-in), or approximately 6.2 votes per person. In 2009, a highpoint of votes per person, still only 6.97 votes were used per person. In 2008, voters cast a mere 5.37 votes per person. It’s clear that even today people are not only generally using less than their full allowance of votes, but they’re using less than the 7 that I’m proposing. This leaves room for an enterprising independent to still seize center stage. Additionally, if the coalitions are weakened, then their hold over the electoral process might weaken, opening up the process further.
In talking with several people about this idea, a key criticism that I’ve encountered is not that this would fail to reduce the power of endorsing organizations, but rather that reducing the power of endorsements is simply not positive. Having majorities could enable more effective governance. Endorsements could serve to identify effective legislators and get them elected. Having a divided Senate may simply not be the benefit that I’ve made it out to be. This is a powerful point. Here, part of the answer is a personal value judgment. I think that it is valuable to have a variety of voices on the Senate. I do not think that partisan differences actually serve to slow the proceedings by much (especially not by much more than they already are slowed by the existence of less strong Senate majorities) and the existence of more viewpoints and supporters of different ideas. Under this new system, smaller endorsements would gain more weight, so a “Green” candidate would be more likely to win on that alone, without the major endorsement. That person would be able to focus on their sustainability platform more exclusively in the Senate. Additionally, I think that having different groups working together on initiatives and policies enables the creation of improved policy since more ideas are considered and all sides have ownership in the final product.
Could I be wrong? Clearly. Please let me know your thoughts about this idea. Is it reasonable? Desirable? Feasible? Everything’s up for debate.