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The Carletonian

The various problems associated with the CSA elections

<olumn we review the problems with CSA’s current voting system. We present a number of serious failures, but not many solutions. Designing a voting system is complicated, hard work, and we should not undertake to change our current system lightly. Still, we believe the problems catalogued below should serve as call for serious thought about a better system.

1. The ballot is too complicated.

Although many of the parts of the ballot are confusing, the biggest problem is with the method of electing senators at-large. We were asked to split eight votes among 13 candidates giving a maximum of three votes to any one candidate. First, the idea of giving multiple votes to any one candidate is ludicrous. It gives more influence to those voters who are simply logging in to vote for their friends than to those who try to distinguish among the candidates and vote for those they find best.

Second, we cannot imagine that anyone can accurately gather, remember, and evaluate information about 13 candidates. The platforms for these candidates run about twelve and half pages and by our count contain over 40 unique policy proposals. Some of the candidates detail their qualification and say little about policies, while others say nothing about their background but provide stances on as many as nine issues. Everything from financial aid policies to what type of ice cream the dining halls serve makes an appearance in the platforms. Voters can’t easily compare candidates, and candidates who are elected can’t point specific part of their platform and say that it has popular support.

Finally, the referendum questions are confusing and conflate the concepts of referendum and survey questions. Voters were presented with some referendum questions that had binding results—the MPIRG question for example. Mixed in were questions phrased exactly the same that were not similarly binding but merely provide direction to Senate—the question regarding Coca-Cola for example. If students are unsure of what their vote actually means, it becomes all the more difficult to answer responsibly.

2. Turnout is too low.

742 students voted in the last election – that’s about 37% turnout. Of course, not every student voted on every question. The average question had 527 votes, or about 26% turnout. On the low end, only 431 students or 22% voted on the CSA Constitution changes. As a result the referendum failed to reach quorum and the changes will not take effect despite 85% of those who voted supporting the changes.

This election was not an anomaly. CSA elections consistently have poor turnout. Normally the winter elections, which include the officer positions, approach 50% turnout while the spring elections struggle to reach 40%. CSA is often used to represent all student opinion to the college, but CSA senators reflect the preferences of only a fraction of Carleton students.

3. There are too few candidates.

Students have five spots on the College Council, Carleton’s highest governing body. Four of those spots were chosen last week in an uncontested election. Those students (through no fault of their own) do not represent Carleton students. When governments hold elections with only one candidate on the ballot they are declared farces by the international community. Unfortunately, CSA College Council election was no better.

The last two years the position of CSA Treasurer has been uncontested. How we allocated our funds is certainly contentious. There are a variety of opinions and real differences in approaches to funding questions. Voters can’t express their preference for one funding theory over another, however, when only one candidate is on the ballot.

4. Issues play a minor role.

41 candidates have run for seats as a senator at large in the last two years. Overall, about 59% of them have been elected. 92% of women are elected, however. Only 43% of international students but 90% of students of color have been elected. None of the four math or science majors who have run have been elected.

What does not appear to make much of a difference, however, is what positions candidates support. Our analysis of candidate platforms in the last two elections across a wide range of policy areas shows that supporting a specific policy does not make a candidate more likely to get elected. For example, four of seven candidates who support changes to the Wellness Center have been elected; three of six advocated PE credit for club sports; three of six who advocated changes in food service. A logistic regression analysis confirms that holding other factors constant policy positions are not a significant predictor of election.

5. Accountability is limited.

In U.S. politics elected officials are held accountable to the electorate when they run for re-election. This is not possible at Carleton for two reasons. First, most people serve in positions of authority for only one year. Rarely do CSA officers or liaisons to college committees run for re-election. Since all of the candidates for at-large senate seat are running against each other there is no motivation to run negatively against someone. Running negative campaigns is bad when it turns to mudslinging, but it can be an extremely effective way of differentiating among candidates and holding incumbents accountable.

If the other candidates won’t hold incumbents responsible for their votes it is unlikely students will. It simply takes too much time to keep track of how each one of the 21 members of Senate votes on the issues that matter to each student. The best most students can do is to vote for incumbents when they think the senate is doing a good job and not vote for them when they think it is failing. By this metric Senate is in trouble: of the four senators running for re-election to at large seats only one was re-elected.

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