By Philip Aiken The practice of student governance likely rivals our school’s unique honor system as Washington and Lee’s most definitive, lauded and respected tradition. As many know, elections for the Executive Committee and Student Judicial Council of the student body are administered and regulated by the Voting Regulations Board (VRB). The VRB, solely composed of students, represents a key example of student governance at W&L. However, frequent election complications in recent years have led some to question the effectiveness of the VRB.
After hearing several minor complaints about unclear campaign rules and inadequate enforcement of such rules throughout the 2014-15 year, the VRB faced an apex of criticism during the toughest election to regulate, the EC presidential election. After the first round of voting, the VRB announced that there would be a runoff between the top three out of four candidates, with a vote distribution of 40%, 30%, 19%, and 11%. Given that the VRB’s “Rules Governing the Winter 2015 Officer…Elections for the EC” does not clearly specify what number of candidates would advance to the second round, one candidate appealed this ruling and as a result, the VRB “decided to narrow the number of candidates… [and] concluded that the number of votes secured by the candidate with the third highest vote count did not warrant their participation in the run-off race.” The confusion worsened when two hours after the new EC president had been announced, the VRB broadcasted that the run-off results were invalid due to a campaign violation that required further investigation and “another run-off election.” That appeal was later processed, and the initial winner was declared to have been elected EC president - but not without considerable confusion, irritation, and loss of confidence in the VRB by the student body as it contradictorily stumbled its way through what should be a relatively simple election process.
The significance of this error is amplified by a similar incident that occurred two years prior in elections for sophomore EC representatives. After the first round, the top three candidates with 34%, 23%, 22% of votes continued to the second round, although the VRB’s rules sheet at the time stated that “The top two vote getters must collectively receive the majority of the vote to win the EC election”. Since there are two EC representative spots and the top two candidates collectively received the majority of the votes, there was no need for a run-off. Clearly the VRB did not abide by this rule in the first round, but the matter worsened when they returned to using this rule for the run-off election. The run-off vote distribution was 40%, 30%, and 30%, where the final 30% had two fewer votes, and the VRB named the top two vote-getters the winners of the election. This inconsistent method of voting was defended by the VRB’s ability to “amend or alter these rules at any time for clarification” when the results were appealed.
Managing the elections of W&L’s most influential student committees obviously requires much responsibility, organization, and task-effectiveness. Are the responsibilities of the VRB so extensive that it would benefit from having more than a few students? Section IX-E-2 of the student body constitution reads, “The Voting Regulations Board shall be comprised of one or more members of the Student Body” and according to former EC president Lucy Wade Shapiro, “The applicant turnout is normally about 5 people. It is up to the EC's discretion how many to appoint.” Although there is neither limitation nor guidance to the number of students on the VRB, it has consisted of three students during the past two academic years (2013-15), and of two students in the two years prior. One change the EC implemented was to create the titles of Logistics Chair, Operations Chair and PR chair, giving specific duties to VRB members rather than having two or three students share identical responsibilities. However, this seemed to have little positive impact, as evidenced by the conflicts this year. So what changes? Sources involved in both aforementioned incidents do not think the number of VRB members is the problem, but rather their ability to make the tough decisions. A faculty advisor would enable firmer decisions in tough situations, as well as taking the pressure off students. This is a change the current members of the VRB “highly recommend to [their] successors.”
Ultimately, the idea of student governance only works if the students in leadership positions are capable of effectively carrying out their respective duties in an organized, timely, and fair manner. As revealed by recent events, the structure (or lack thereof) of the Voting Regulations Board hinders the VRB chairman’s ability to fulfill these obligations. The pressure is too high, possibilities too numerous, and authoritative freedom too loose. Logically, election rules and procedures should remain absolutely unchanged for the duration of the election. In the case of an extraordinary or unprecedented situation, a faculty advisor should be available and consulted. Ironically, there is no rule against having a faculty advisor and on the contrary, the student body constitution states that the VRB is allowed to reach out to a "faculty and/or staff member in creating, administering, and regulating the polls." However, blame for recent election mishaps or confusions should not fall on the students serving during those elections; the current system is simply not adequate, and demands stricter, clearer regulation and a faculty advisor with ultimate authority.