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This is the moment for alternative voting systems. As Americans come to realize their dissatisfaction with the two-party duopoly that dominates our political system, the opportunity is ripe for new, better ways of choosing our elected leaders. But this doesn’t mean that new voting systems are destined for public acceptance, and sloppy management of elections has the potential to unduly impugn the credibility of systems that are actually better for voters. New York City’s instant-runoff voting mayoral primary this past summer showed how new voting systems are often blamed for the failures of the bureaucrats who operate them poorly.
This New York City voting fiasco might just repeat itself at Harvard. In 2018, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council adopted Rank and Add voting, a more flexible system that allows voters to express preferences for all candidates they like and rewards candidates who attract the broadest support, for its elections. But the UC incorrectly managed this year’s presidential election, and if not fixed, this threatens to undermine students’ faith in Rank and Add for no good reason.
A central premise of Rank and Add is that voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they please in order of their preference. It necessarily follows that a voter who only ranks three candidates in a six-candidate race cannot rank any candidate past the third spot. This means that there can never be more total votes in a lower rank than a higher one.
Harvard Undergraduate Voters Choose requested the full breakdown of the recent UC election results, which the UC did not release to the student body. There are more total sixth-place votes than fifth-place votes, which is impossible in Rank and Add. While we cannot determine the exact number of defective ballots, there were at least 36 (the difference in the number of sixth and fifth place ranks). Each of these 36-plus ballots should have been disqualified. In this case, the actual results of the election would not have changed — but the same error could skew elections in the future if left uncorrected.
Ideally, the UC would be more transparent and effective at all stages of the election, clearly explaining Rank and Add on the ballot itself and adopting a software that doesn’t allow ballots to be cast improperly. The president of Harvard Undergraduate Voters Choose reached out to the UC Election Commission, and a representative said that they are interested in transitioning to a new platform that would allow them to do just this. If they cannot find such a platform by the next election, the UC should comb through the anonymized ballots manually and remove every incorrect one. Election integrity is crucial, and a hassle is no excuse to run an election improperly.
After elections are run, the UC must also explain the results to students. A key premise of Rank and Add is that each rank amounts to a certain number of points for each candidate. Every first place rank receives one point, every second place one half a point, third place one third of a point, and so on. This means that candidates often end up with fractions of points, despite a whole number of votes being cast. When the UC announced this year’s presidential election results, it stated that the winners, Michael Cheng and Emmet de Kanter, received 967.4 votes. This likely makes little sense to the average student, who isn’t familiar with Rank and Add and hasn’t even received an explanation of how the system works from the UC. And by making students fish for the full results by request, instead of releasing them proactively, the UC denies the student body the opportunity to fully understand Rank and Add and how it works in their elections.
The New York City Board of Elections decimated public confidence in instant-runoff voting by running a sloppy, incompetent mayoral election. The UC should avoid doing the same for Rank and Add.
Lucas T. Gazianis ’24 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. He is a member of Harvard Undergraduate Voters Choose.
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