As a responsible member of the Harvard College student body, I clicked on the link for the Undergraduate Council presidential elections this morning (from one of the countless reminders and petitions that I have been receiving and deleting), intending to vote for the candidates that can best represent my interests and advocate for changes on my behalf (this year, for example, the UC did a fascinating job attempting to introduce food-delivering robots, initially voting down a statement of support for a student, and had a really comprehensive debate on interpretations of the UC constitution).
And after the arduous tasks of logging onto TheHub and reaching out for my phone to complete two factor authentication, I finally landed at the online voting page:
“Please insert your top five picks for President and Vice President of the Undergraduate Council, respectively.”
I took a look at the lists of candidates and decided that none of the candidates can represent me in making the necessary changes to the UC. None of the candidates seem to have thought hard about what is wrong with a system that literally inspires less voter turnout than a 9 a.m. section and successfully promises the same changes every year: A muticultural center, reforms to academic curriculum and funding for mental health, sexual assault prevention, race relations, and social spaces, for example. The list continues, and every time another candidate reiterates the same empty promise, the UC’s credibility suffers yet again. In fact, even Aditya A. Dhar ’21 and Andrew W. Liang ’21’s promise to dissolve the UC from the inside, as a joking expression of student frustration, is not unprecedented.
Subsequently, I decided to express my frustration by voting to abstain. I left all the boxes unchecked and clicked “Next.”
Then, out of the blue, a red boxed message popped up: “There was a problem with your submission. There are missing required fields or fields not entered in the correct format.”
After trying to play around the rule — I tried placing all candidates on the fifth place, all as my first choice and many other permutations — I realised that I must vote for a candidate in order to participate in the UC elections at all. When I exercise my right to vote in this election, I must put my vote behind a candidate and the UC system.
By any measures, not being able to abstain in the Harvard UC election is not a devastating problem. Afterall, only 2 percent of the student population (about one fifth the size of CS50) voted in the past midterm elections. But more than my right to abstain, this ballot precisely embodies what is wrong with the UC.
The UC lives within a fantasy where it is the champion of student clubs, the popular party planning committee, and the generous and welcomed financier of student events (despite the fact that much of that money comes from our own pockets in the form of the Student Activities Fees). But as great as their plans may be on paper, they are simply out of touch from reality. For example, while the initiative “From the UC to U” was cited in the Final End of Year Report as a reform “to update students on Council happenings,” the report fails to mention that the 24 videos posted in 2019 averaged less than 300 views each, which is less than 5 percent of the student body. The ballot design once again exemplifies their misunderstanding or neglect of student opinion: In an election where one of the submitted referenda was to dissolve the UC and a pair of candidates are running on a platform to dissolve the UC, the UC still does not consider the wild possibility that students who are frustrated by the UC and do not feel represented by any candidate may wish to express their feelings by voting to abstain.
This op-ed is not a denial of student activism or organizing student government. Student activism and government can be and have been important forces on campus and broader society. But needless to say, the UC is not doing an acceptable job in either field. And if they wish to improve the current dysfunctional system, they have much to learn from other student groups on campus and around the country that have made change or organised student movements.
And until there is a candidate who recognizes these flaws and a UC that is dedicated to fixing them, I would like the right to abstain in a UC election.
Justin Y. C. Wong ’22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Dunster House.