What Choice?

Without room for abstention, the Undergraduate Council ballot is sadly deficient

Harvard undergraduates with a desire to vote in this week’s Undergraduate Council presidential and vice-presidential elections are confronted with a ballot replete with candidates’ names but lacking an essential component of any democratic lot—a space for abstention. In an election where so much is shared by the three respective campaigns, voters who find all of the candidates for each position uninspiring are left out in the cold with respect to choice: Their only option is not to cast a ballot and to forfeit their right to have a say. In any democratic system, there ought to be a clear difference between an informed abstention and an outright decision to stay away from the polls. The two reflect very different attitudes toward voting and ought to send two very different messages—something for which the council’s present electoral modus operandi fails to provide.

At the heart of the problem is the specific nature of the electronic balloting used by the council in its elections. Unlike with traditional paper ballots, where abstention at the polls is as simple as spoiling one’s ballot (by voting for every candidate for every position, or by drawing pretty pictures as opposed to casting a vote), the electronic system refuses to accept any form that has not been completed properly. Any attempt to submit a blank ballot is met by an insensitive JavaScript dialog box, which ungraciously informs the would-be abstainer that his effort to refrain from voting is not well-taken. With no way of simultaneously casting a ballot and abstaining from a decision, voters who cannot make a decision on next year’s council leaders are left with only one option: not voting. The current state of the council’s balloting process forces into a single category both those voters who feel unrepresented by what they perceive as an inadequate selection of candidates and those who are genuinely apathetic. In an environment such as Harvard, where voter apathy is always a matter of concern and where participation in electoral processes is always heartily encouraged, to force those people without candidate preferences out of the system altogether renders useless the voter participation rates used to bolster arguments about student voter apathy. In short, everybody loses.

But it isn’t just accuracy that gets lost when voters are deprived of their ability to abstain; when campus-wide referenda and presidential/vice-presidential elections are conducted on the same electronic ballot, a voter who may want to abstain from voting on the question of their student government leadership, but who feels strongly about one or more of the referendum questions, is unable to cast a vote on the latter while declining to participate in the former. It isn’t hard to imagine, for instance, that a given student might feel that the distinction between renewable and exhaustible energy is more significant than the differences between Matthew J. Glazer ’06, Teo P. Nicolais ’06 and Tracy “Ty” Moore II ’06. The present council electoral system, however, does not allow for that sentiment. There are two possible outcomes: either voters choose their council presidential picks arbitrarily so that they can have their say on the other ballot questions, or they vote on neither issue and are left out of the democratic process by the dynamics of an unfairly-conducted election. It goes without saying that neither of these end-results is in the least desirable, either for the student who is forced to choose between them, or by the larger University community that is made to live with the consequences of that forced choice (in the form of lower participation rates, a weakened democratic system and uninformed or even random voting). To keep from participating in an election, or to force an unfair decision on voters who are unwilling or (understandably) unable to distinguish between presidential platforms, but who feel that the question of Harvard’s using renewable energy is important, is undemocratic and even irrational.

There is no question that the choice of council leadership is an important one, but the present system, which fails to allow for voters not wanting or not able to distinguish between basically identical campaign platforms, mischaracterizes a group of Harvard students whose self-removal from the electoral process is distinct from mere apathy and undemocratically deprives them of a voice. No one stands to benefit from that over-simplification.

Adam Goldenberg ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Grays Hall.