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The Dangers of Popular U.C. Elections


By Amy M. Rabinowitz

Last week's Undergraduate Council elections energized the campus. Campaign volunteers covered Harvard Yard with posters, dinner conversations revolved around candidates' platforms and students actually voted. In great measure, this occurred as a result of last spring's adoption of popular presidential and vice presidential elections, a decision that has increased student interest in the council and given it greater legitimacy. We have greater faith in a governing body whose head we elect; we are naturally more interested in evaluating the decisions and activities of a popularly-elected council.

But I question whether in this case more democracy is necessarily a good thing. Despite all the benefits of direct elections, I am not convinced that they produce the best possible candidate to lead the Undergraduate Council. One problem is that they depend on having an interested and informed electorate; as we saw in the council election, this can be very difficult to achieve. My first government class at Harvard, "Government 1560: The American Presidency," has made me think about how similar the problems in the council race are to those that perennially appear in national presidential elections.

The election process for U.S. President has become far more direct and democratic in the past few decades than our founding fathers ever intended. The electoral college was meant to be a deliberative body of state legislature representatives who would carefully select the leader of the country. The electors were to be educated, informed citizens who understood the issues facing the government and could be trusted to select someone as important as the president of the United States.

Today, the election process does not at all reflect this ideal scenario. The advent of direct primaries and the decline of political parties' power have virtually eliminated any sense of a deliberative process. The system now depends on the voting public to select the candidates. The task at hand then becomes to educate voters, providing them with information about the candidates and their platforms, so that they can make well-informed and well-thought-out decisions. The media has, by default, become the link between the candidates and the people. Without television, radio and newspapers, those running for office would find it incredibly difficult to convey their message and make themselves known to the people.

Because of these modern circumstances, direct elections are dangerous. They pose the risk that voters will not make educated decisions, but will merely choose candidates who have the best sound bites or wear the best clothing or garner the most television coverage. Candidates' records, platforms and leadership qualities can get lost in the shuffle.

Electing Undergraduate Council executives directly thus makes it more difficult to cast a knowledgeable vote. Without a medium such as television or radio, candidates must struggle to make themselves and their platforms known. They are left to depend mostly on posters, e-mails and coverage in campus publications. But these means do not necessarily reach all members of the student body, nor do they adequately inform voters' decisions. The attempt to have popular elections for such a large student body without many effective channels to disseminate information presents a challenge to those running for president and vice president. Elections all too easily turn into popularity contests.

The council debate presented one of the few opportunities to hear almost all of the candidates voice their proposals and ideas; it also allowed for comparisons among candidates. Unfortunately, most of those attending the debate were council members, representatives of campus publications and supporters and roommates of candidates. This is the most informed group to begin with, which diminishes the marginal benefit of the event. The debate itself should be more publicized next year.

Students currently do not know enough or care enough about the council to be able to make the best judgment about who should lead it. Candidates should not be chosen on name recognition. However, if students are expected to make their choice based only on posters and table tents around campus, then this is the likely outcome. It is hard for students who have little familiarity with the working of the council to judge best who can unify the council and work with the administration to accomplish real student goals.

I am not advocating that we should simply return to the old method of elections within the council. Popular elections allow for a greater diversity of candidates and give the council a much-needed sense of credibility. The fervor the elections create around campus is exciting and bodes well for soliciting support and enthusiasm for the council in the future. However, one can not overlook the problems.

Steps to foster a better-educated pool of voters have already been taken this year. Many of the candidates created their own Web pages, made extensive efforts to meet students and tabled outside the Science Center. Position papers were also available on-line during the voting process. Students should contribute to the formation of a well-primed electorate by being responsible about their voting power and making a commitment to attend events like the debate. These efforts must continue if the student body is to be trusted with the decision of Undergraduate Council president and vice president. If not, Harvard's student government could return to its previous elitist system, and the students will have no one to blame but themselves.

Amy M. Rabinowitz is a junior concentrating in Economics.

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