In tomorrow’s special election, Wellesley students will once again cast ballots to determine who will represent our interests in College Government (CG) in the upcoming academic year. This special election includes races for CG President (CGP), Vice President (CGVP) and Secretary-Treasurer. For all the financial and administrative power that CG holds, it attracts an extremely limited number of candidates, and as such, many positions are determined by uncontested races. This past election, five out of a total of eight positions had only one candidate on the ballot, yet only four of these five uncontested races had a winner, and the position of CGP remained open. This is because, in addition to listing the declared candidates’ names, the ballot also lists an “abstain” option. If a voter casts an “abstain” vote, then their vote is counted as a vote against all candidates for that position. In uncontested races, a candidate must win more than 51 percent of the vote in order to win the election, and in contested races, the candidate with the most votes wins. In the original CG election, the abstain option served an important function, allowing students who did not feel that they were adequately represented by the available candidates to choose a different candidate later on in a special election. Although in this case the abstain option allowed the election results to reflect the preferences of the majority of voters, it is only a temporary and imperfect fix to the larger issue of under-participation in student government elections.
Because so many CG candidates run uncontested, it is important that students have not only a write-in option but also an abstain option. If there is initially only one person on the ballot, and during the course of the campaign students decide that this lone candidate is not well suited to office, students would be left with dismal odds of securing a better candidate without the abstain option. While most democratic elections include a write-in option, this alone is not sufficient to ensure that the best candidate is elected in races where there is initially only one candidate running. Without the abstain option, the only way to elect a candidate other than the one offered on the ballot would be to launch a successful write-in campaign. This alternative, however, contains many logistical obstacles. First of all, any individual who wishes to enter the race would only have a fraction of the time the first candidate had to organize their resources and launch a campaign. Additionally, they would face the unavoidable problem of not having their name written on the ballot. The listed candidate has an undeniable advantage because any voters who have not heard of the write-in campaign or who do not have strong feelings about the particular race may be inclined to vote for the listed candidate simply because they feel this candidate’s victory is all but inevitable. This phenomenon stacks the odds against any candidate who may wish to enter the race late in order to provide voters with another option.
Another obstacle that write-in candidates face is an inherent coordination problem. Just because potential voters can agree that the listed candidate is not right for the position does not mean that they will necessarily agree on who the appropriate alternate choice would be. Thus, without an abstain option, it could be the case that multiple write-in campaigns are launched. This could potentially fracture the alliance that voters once had against the original candidate and cause them to divide their votes amongst the write-in candidates, thus handing an undue victory to the listed candidate despite the fact that the majority of voters may believe they are unfit for office.
Wellesley’s abstain option offers a temporary solution to all of these problems by first allowing voters to voice their dissatisfaction with the candidate offered to them by denying them an uncontested victory. Then, if these “abstain campaigns” are successful, the elections committee (EC) will hold a special election to find candidates who are better suited to the position. This gives all candidates who chose to run an even playing field and adequate time to mobilize their resources, whereas without the abstain option, they would be forced to hastily construct a write-in campaign. The abstain option also ensures that the new candidates are subjected to the same scrutiny to which the original candidate was subject while campaigning. This structure gives the Wellesley student body the best chance of choosing the right person for the job as opposed to simply voting for the first alternative that is offered.
Although the abstain option is an important mechanism to ensure the election of a quality candidate in some cases, it can place an undue burden on unopposed candidates. This is because candidates running unopposed are required to receive 51 percent of the vote in order to win, while candidates in contested positions need only secure more votes than their closest competitor. This policy means that an uncontested candidate could lose with 50 percent of the vote while a contested candidate could win with half as much support. Therefore, in some cases the most popular candidate could still lose, and the student body could end up with a less popular candidate after a contested special election.
While the abstain option is important to ensure that voters are not forced to accept an unsuitable candidate in an uncontested race, the best way to solve this problem would be to get more students to run for CG Cabinet in the first place. Members of the CG Cabinet will be paid beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, and this may help increase the number of candidates, but we still have to do more to encourage participation in CG. Right now, despite the hard work of our elected officials, it is still difficult for CG to influence positive change on campus due to administrative red tape. Working in CG is grueling, and often its efforts go unappreciated or unnoticed, which deters many students from running. As a community, we should be more involved with on-campus politics in order to pinpoint what needs to be changed and then elect those who are dedicated to making it happen. We also have to acknowledge that it takes a great deal of courage to run for office at Wellesley and to subject yourself to public scrutiny. As such, we should ensure that in evaluating these candidates, we do not subject them to unnecessary harassment or unproductive criticism that may discourage qualified individuals from running.
Ideally, voters should have a number of candidates to choose from for each office so that we do not have to rely on abstain campaigns and special elections. However, until we can change the culture surrounding CG elections and get more candidates to run, including the abstain option is the best way to ensure that we find quality candidates to represent our interests.