Corrupt Bargains and Smoke-filled Rooms: The Need for Electoral Reform in Student Government
By Ben Whedon, Publisher
Winter Term 2015: First-Year T. Mason Grist emerges from a hotly contested election as one of the youngest students ever to hold the office of President of the Executive Committee. The problem: he was never a candidate for the office. Mason’s ascension from the Vice-Presidency was the result of the President-elect being placed on academic suspension less than three days after an appeal in his favor handed him the race. Achieving some of the highest voter participation counts in recent years, the race came in the wake of the Phi Kappa Psi suspension. For the first time in recent memory, position platforms actually played a substantial role with candidates issuing explicit statements on the place of Greek life in campus culture and attempting to define its relationship with the administration. Plagued by appeals and electoral mismanagement, the race lasted for over a week past its initial timeframe. While certainly not the only factor, a substantial contributor to the chaos of the Winter 2015 and subsequent election cycles is presented by the shadowy organization of the Voting Regulations Board.
An Executive Committee-appointed student group, the VRB oversees the procedures and integrity of the electoral process. This includes determining guidelines for eligibility, outlining acceptable and unacceptable campaign practices, supervising the candidate forums, counting the ballots, and of course, resolving any disputes about campaign misconduct. Elections occur once per year, excepting First-Years who choose their EC and SJC representatives in the Fall. With no faculty advisor and minimal oversight from other student organizations, this small group of individuals is at liberty to arbitrarily define the nature of each race by imposing or lifting limitations on campaign practices such as spending limits or the use of social media.
With such substantial power over campaign regulations, it falls to the board members to effectively educate the student body as well as the potential candidates on their iteration of the electoral guidelines. This is a task made exceptionally difficult by the absence of any continuity in the board and its organization. As one complication, the number of members on the board is not fixed. Three members were appointed for the 2014-2015 academic year while four held positions for the 2015-2016 cycles. Moreover, the position of Chairman has fluctuated in and out of existence with one appointed for 2014-2015 but not in the following year. This has proved to be a problem in the past. In the infamous election of Winter 2015, the three-student VRB was left without a leader when the sitting Chairman temporarily withdrew from the University for personal reasons. He was not replaced in time for the election cycle and the board was left with an even number of two members which evidently caused a great deal of delay. Last year, the appointment of four members widened the possibility for tied deliberations. Surely, the board would benefit from a fixed composition of an odd number of members and a chairman to more swiftly resolve any misconduct claims.
Moreover, the electoral guidelines are subject to a yearly review by each iteration of the organization. With no faculty advisor to bring consistent advice and insight, the campaign regulations have the potential to vary wildly and indeed they often do. More disturbing, however, is the appellate process. All VRB members are appointed by the popular assent of the sitting Executive Committee. This Board then regulates, presides over, and adjudicates all disputes in Executive Committee and Student Judicial Council elections. Stranger still is the fact that any appeal of a VRB decision goes right back to the EC. Indeed, in the Winter 2015 race, the EC ultimately overturned the VRB decision in a Presidential election between two sitting members of the Executive Committee.
Though this article makes no particular accusations of misconduct, the conflicts of interest within the VRB remain self-evident. Elected officeholders should not provide oversight to the electoral process, whether they themselves are seeking reelection or not. The EC also appoints the members of another committee known as the University Board of Appeals. This includes three students and three faculty members. All decisions of the Student Judicial Council, the Student Faculty Hearing Board, and the Interfraternity Council may be appealed to this body. Why is it then that when all adjudicating bodies of consequence are subject to the oversight of the UBA, only the VRB is regulated by the EC? Though the UBA is still an EC-appointed committee, shifting oversight from the EC to the Board of Appeals would go a long way in lessening conflicts of interest and expediting the appellate process.
Barring the organizational inconsistencies and questionable appellate procedures, one ought to investigate current campaigning restrictions and ask if they truly foster equal footing and constructive dialogue between candidates. Nominally, the restrictions imposed by the VRB are meant to level the opportunities between potential candidates. To some extent, they are well-designed and effective. For example, there is a reasonable campaign spending limit in place of $30.00 which goes a long way in preventing ludicrous campaign escapades on campus. I recall a recent high school election in California wherein a student purchased an endorsement from Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston. That said, W&L student candidates are usually limited to roughly 20 posters and a single mass email.
Though social media use has been expanded somewhat, the opportunity for relatively unestablished candidates to present their visions to the student body is largely limited to the candidate forum. Last year marked a change in procedure in that the forum was held in Lee Chapel, which of course mandated proper attire and stifled attendance. Some of this diminishing visibility can be reasonably attributed to limited student interest in the electoral process, and these forums were previously held in Stackhouse Theater, which offered a more convenient venue. Moreover, the speeches of the candidates are no longer recorded and posted on Sakai. Instead, the VRB chose to post only the pre-submitted speech texts which likely went unread by most. Under these impositions, candidates are left with little viable means of presenting their platforms other than by word-of-mouth, rarely practical for an average W&L student. Ultimately, this weakens the ability of the Washington and Lee community to engage in constructive dialogues about the direction of the school. Perhaps the Executive Committee will keep this in mind when appointing next year’s board members.