CCSC Plans Election Reforms

Alix Pianin // Published February 24, 2009 in Columbia Spectator

The Columbia College Student Council is set to approve instant runoff voting for student elections.

The Columbia College Student Council is anticipating election changes intended to increase the value of votes and broaden the spectrum of candidates. The changes could allow a prospective student leader to win an election without a majority but with a plurality.

As discussed at Sunday evening’s meeting, CCSC plans to change the method of electing candidates pending Columbia College Information Technology’s collaboration in changing the online system’s functionality. While students have traditionally chosen between contenders and voted for their favorite runner, the new system would allow voters to rank the candidates. If one candidate has an overwhelming majority, the process would stop there. But previous elections, which were extremely close in the last two years, show that such decisive an outcome is unlikely.

If there is no majority candidate, the process would continue as follows: after the lowest-ranked candidates are eliminated from the race, his or her votes would be redistributed to the other contenders.

While council members conceded that this method, known as an instant runoff, would be a more time-consuming election process, it would increase the value of each vote by letting none go to waste. Some argued that the reforms could cause elections to be a more accurate barometer of students’ intents. Under the new rules, a candidate could be elected without a majority so long as the tally indicated that the contender was the most widely preferred choice across the student body.

Vice President of Policy Adil Ahmed, CC’09, said the change in policy would make the candidates more credible, especially in light of previous close elections. It also might increase outreach to non-council members of the student body interested in running for positions. “It’s something that we always need to improve on,” Ahmed said.

“People with ideals that may be radical on either end don’t run because they didn’t feel like they have a chance,” CCSC President George Krebs, CC ’09, added. “The advantage of doing a ranked preferential voting system would be to allow a variety of ideas.”

After several election cycles with relatively low voter turnout, council members said they hoped that the new system would draw out previously apathetic CC voters. The rules could also strengthen the hand of write-in candidates who were previously overlooked.

“There was no problem that pushed us to changing the voting system,” said James Bogner, CC ’10 and chair of the election board, adding, “It makes it a better place for multiparty elections.”

As CCSC leans heavily toward adopting the new voting system, the Council seems to be following a growing trend among peer institutions. As Harvard, Dartmouth, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have all switched to more sophisticated voting systems, Columbia council members believe that changing their own process will keep them ahead of the curve. “This was one way of keeping in stride with what other schools are doing,” Bogner said.

A move to an instant runoff voting system would require the addition of a clause in the CCSC constitution to define how elections would be carried out in the future. The Engineering Student Council has a similar clause in its constitution in the case of a runoff in which the candidate with the plurality vote would be elected to office.

While council members began planning the election changes in August, coordination with CCIT to adjust the voting Web site has proven to be a challenge. Krebs and Bogner both said that the implementation of the new policies is contingent upon the time it takes to get the technology up and running. But Krebs is hopeful that the new voting system will be ready soon.

“CCIT says that it’s a realistic possibility for this semester,” he said, though Bogner is less certain about a projected timeline. Council members at Sunday’s meeting suggested that it might become a long-term project extending into next year. CCIT did not respond to inquiries before press time.

Senior Class Representative Colin Felsman noted that several Columbia campus groups had already gone the way of instant runoff votes. “I think it gives the victor a stronger mandate,” he said in an e-mail. Felsman added, “It’s also very similar to the Caucus system used for Democratic Primaries, the very system that played to Obama’s advantage in Iowa ... an interesting parallel.”