Last month, Joshua D. Liston '95 was elected president of the Undergraduate Council. As we noted in a staff editorial on the elections, there were several small problems with Liston as a candidate. He was nearly impeached from his post as vice-president for administrative incompetence; a referendum he conducted was invalidated because of numerous procedural mistakes; he was temporarily removed from the council this past fall because of excessive absences. Despite all of these problems in his past, Liston won election as U.C. president with a mere 0.58 percent of the student body.
We are tired of the U.C. backroom politics that year after year send members of the "old boy network" to executive positions on the council. It is for this reason that we support popular elections of Undergraduate Council executives as an important step in the direction of reform.
There are several advantages to a system where the student body at large, rather than the council itself, elects council executives. First, popular elections would make U.C. leaders more representative of the student body as a whole.
When the U.C. president currently appears before the administration, his legitimacy as a voice for the student body can be called into question very easily. Elected by a body that is notoriously inept and unrepresentative, he lacks a popular mandate. What administrator in his right mind would actually pay attention to such a leader?
Another advantage to the proposal is that it would improve the democratic process in student government at Harvard. We do not wish to give the U.C. an exalted position it does not deserve by looking at it through the lens of political philosophy, but the advantage we point to is a substantial one. Holding popular elections for council executives would make executives directly accountable to the people they represent. As it stands now, leaders who have failed the student body time and again can win election to high positions so long as they have enough friends on the council itself. (Does the name "Mike Beys" ring a bell?)
In addition, we believe a popular election would eliminate the type of scheming which occurred in the most recent council election. Candidates like Randall A. Fine '96 would never stand a chance in a campus election where their dishonesty would be obvious.
Not everyone has the foresight to see the advantages of popular elections. Opponents of this measure point to the low rate of student body participation in the regular elections of U.C. representatives. If so few students bother to participate in regular elections, they ask, then why would they care about executive offices?
If we use dismal voter turnout figures from the most recent elections, this argument seems quite compelling. But the most recent elections, in which 99 students ran for 81 seats, may not be the most representative in terms of voter turnout. If you live in a house where there are no more candidates than council seats--as Liston does--would you bother to vote for U.C. representatives? If we take a more long-term outlook and look back on previous elections, we see that voter turnout was not always so low. In the fall of 1993, voter turnout was approximately 50 percent. While not amazing, this number is certainly respectable.
We also believe that popular elections could help alleviate the problem of voter apathy. By encouraging people to pay more attention to the council and by giving them real power over their government, such elections might encourage students to actually learn about the various candidates and exercise their right to vote.
Not surprisingly, the proposal for popular elections enjoys the support of a substantial portion of the student body. In a referendum last May, 68 percent of voting students supported popular election of major council executives. We urge council members to listen to their constituents and adopt a system of popular elections.