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Undergraduate Council Adopts New Voting Method for Elections

The Undergraduate Council held its first meeting of the fall 2018 semester in the newly renovated Smith Campus Center.
The Undergraduate Council held its first meeting of the fall 2018 semester in the newly renovated Smith Campus Center. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Jonah S. Berger, Crimson Staff Writer

The Undergraduate Council voted overwhelmingly Sunday to change its voting method in an effort to simplify its election process and ensure that, when voters rank multiple candidates, all of those candidates will receive a share of the vote total.

The new method, called the Borda count voting system, gives each candidate a number of points corresponding to the number of candidates ranked below them. If three candidates were running, for example, a voter’s first preference would receive 1 point, their second preference 0.5 points, and their third 0.33 points.

Previously, UC elections relied on the Hare-Clark method, also a ranked-choice system. Under this system, if a sufficient number of candidates do not receive a particular threshold of first-place votes, the bottom candidate is eliminated and their votes are transferred to remaining candidates. It continues in this manner until winners for the position are determined.

Elections later this month for general Council seats, as well as the presidential election in November, will use the Borda method. The UC Election Commission, an independent student-run body, oversees UC elections.

The Harvard chapter of Voters Choose, a nonprofit advocacy organization seeking election reform across the country, presented their recommendations on the UC’s voting system at Sunday’s meeting.

Brandon M. Martinez ’20, founder of Voters Choose, argued that the Borda method would better reflect the will of the student body and reduce confusion. A new system, he suggested, could also increase turnout — a UC priority in the wake of a presidential election last year which saw the lowest turnout in Council history.

“This will be an improvement off of the... Hare-Clark method because those lower preferences don’t come into effect until multiple rounds have occurred, whereas every preference counts in this method,” Martinez said.  “If there’s a bottom-ranked candidate [in the Hare-Clark system], that person will be eliminated and anyone who voted for him or her will be removed from the process.”

“So there’s a major issue of disenfranchisement that is buried in some of the mechanics,” he added.

But Dunster House Representative Victor C. Agbafe ’19 said he doubted a new voting method would encourage students to vote, arguing that the process by which votes are counted is less important than the election software itself. Members overhauled that technology last semester after suffering through a presidential election marred by technical issues.

“The assumption is simplifying the voting system, in terms of how votes count, will equal higher turnout,” Agbafe said. “I’m a little iffy about that.”

UC Vice President Nicholas D. Boucher ’19 said the Hare-Clark method was so complicated that the voting software the UC put in place last year could not calculate the results.  Instead, Boucher himself had to compose code to tabulate votes, a process he called “painful.”

“What we’re trying to do is move away from a system that is not explainable at the human level,” Boucher said. “I think we have an incredible proposal here for really good reasons why we should be using a different system.”

Crimson Yard Representative Ifeoma E. White-Thorpe ’21 asked if the new system could potentially allow a candidate with fewer first-place votes than another candidate to emerge victorious.

“Is it possible, under this new system, say someone has 30 number-one votes, and the person in second has 25 votes and a ton of votes for third, could that person win?” she asked.

Pablo Rasmussen ’20, director of outreach for Voters Choose, conceded that such a situation could occur.

“The short answer is yes,” he said. “The odds of that are slim, but yes, it is possible.”

The Council ultimately passed the legislation 27-2.

Also at the meeting, UC leaders announced they would establish a student advisory committee — including a “chief of inclusion” — composed of non-UC representatives. The committee will advise the Council on administrative matters.

The Council also elected Rainbow Yeung ’19 as its new secretary, replacing Jackson Walker ’21, who recently resigned from the Council.

Correction: Sept. 10, 2018

A previous version of this article misstated the class year of Rainbow Yeung '19. It has been updated.

—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

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