Who Watches the Watchers?

Who Watches the Watchers?

In late January, President Trump created an uproar with an executive order that barred immigration from several countries in the Middle East and temporarily suspended green cards. Stanford students were outraged that, with a single stroke of a pen, the President had made sweeping, unilateral alterations to our nation’s laws.

Yet it was President Obama’s use of far-reaching executive orders set the precedent that enabled President Trump to do the same. Though the government may be at times led by people we trust and support, one day authority may be wielded by those we do not.

The same can be said for Stanford’s own ASSU, the only body on campus that is supposed to operate democratically. But ASSU elections operate with little accountability. Under the bylaws of the ASSU constitution, the Elections Commission exists to oversee and restrict elections — it must often monitor the Senate. The Commission’s primary responsibility is to create and enforce all election policy.

The Review therefore finds it strikingly undemocratic that the members of the Election Commission are chosen by the Senate: the body is beholden to the very people it is decision to monitor. Moreover, the Commission can make unilateral alterations to our election regulations and only inform the student body after the fact. Most recently, it altered the bar for getting a petition on the ballot from one hundred signatures to five percent of the student body, a change made with neither public input nor public awareness.

There are three levels of bureaucracy between a student’s vote and the decisions made by the Elections Commission. The sitting Senate creates a Nominations Commission, comprised of unelected non-Senators. Those students then select other non-Senators to head the Elections Commission. The nominations are required to be made public prior to selection, but the Review has been unable to find any such listing anywhere on the Elections Commission page or on any Senate email sent to the student body.

Even if one exists, public access is not the same as public knowledge. The ASSU is currently not obligated to inform the public of their prospective nominations through any specific means, only to make the information available if someone decides to look. Students have the right to know who makes decisions in student government so that they can take action if the Senate or the Election Commission disregards its mandate.

Additionally, the unchecked powers granted to the Elections Commission are vulnerable to extensive abuse. Those chosen by the Nominations Commission, sometimes as few as three people, have unilateral authorityover election policy. They decide without public input every aspect of our electoral process, from vote counts required for candidacy or petitioning to campaign funding caps and term limits. Their decisions are also made by a simple majority vote: two unelected students can pass a new policy that affects the entire student body for many years to come and only announce it retroactively.

The Election Commission’s power is checked only by the Senate — the very body which it is supposed to regulate. The Senate can override any decision by the Election Commission with a two-thirds majority vote. While it is important to put a check on the Commission’s authority, it should not be the Senate that does so, as Senators regularly run reelection campaigns that are subject to the Elections Commission. How could the Senate not be expected to have a conflict of interest when regulating the very mechanism keeping them in power?

Members of the Elections Commission should be chosen through a student body vote just like ASSU senators. They should make a public declaration of their policies regarding elections like every other office holder. Such measures would remove their ties to the Senate and makes them directly accountable to student voters.

Once in office, Election Commissioners must not be allowed to pass regulations into law without public approval. Any significant policy change beyond simple administrative matters must be decided by a majority of the students. While subjecting these decisions to a referendum vote would be time consuming, it is the only fair way to determine election policy. Any electoral process must be accountable to the electorate.

Tabulating election results and preventing election tampering should remain the Election Commission’s responsibility. But in determining thresholds for candidacies and petitions, regulating campaign finance, and many other election policies, the Elections Commission should not be allowed to operate with impunity. The ASSU Senate should no longer have the right to overrule Elections Commission decisions.

Article V of the ASSU constitution grants an unacceptable amount of power to the Election Commission. I do not believe that the 18th Undergraduate Senate is guilty or even capable of corruption of this caliber. But the potential for such abuse nonetheless exists. And as former Provost John Etchemendy noted, the greatest dangers grow from within.

The Senate to must make the necessary constitutional amendments to protect future generations of Stanford students. Any delay on the matter is unacceptable.

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