Stanford Student Government: A Facade of Democracy

When we asked senior Hoover fellow Larry Diamond whether Stanford was a one-party state, he responded: “I don’t think I quite said that ASSU politics is akin to a one-party state. Other parties are permitted here, they just don’t have a chance to compete on a truly level playing field. It is a sociological rather than a legal phenomenon, but it has a constitutional component to it.”
Though we may have been melodramatic in asking whether Diamond thought Stanford was a one-party state, his disdain for our electoral process came as no surprise. Diamond went on to criticize the ASSU’s “regressive and highly majoritarian electoral system,” which grants disproportionate power to a dominant party. “There is a good reason why democracies have generally moved away from it,” Diamond remarked.

This year’s ASSU election, like all those before it, proved Diamond’s point: all nine candidates endorsed by the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) won Senate seats and there was little variation amongst the policy platforms of successful candidates. Instead of heated civic debate or candidate outreach, uninformative flyers and lackluster Daily pieces characterized our election climate, hardly indicators of a vibrant democracy. Even worse, this year’s election was marred by scandal: accusations of voter disenfranchisement, campaign regulation violations, and a pending ASSU investigation on the Class of 2021 presidency have cast further doubt on the legitimacy of our student elections. As informed Stanford citizens, we must examine the current ASSU electoral process, its flaws, and its implications on the integrity of Stanford as a democratic society.

The current ASSU voting process is majoritarian: Senators are elected only if they accrue a majority vote amongst electors. Under the classic majoritarian system of block voting, each member of the undergraduate population casts one vote for up to fifteen undergraduate Senators selected from the pool. The candidates who receive the largest number of votes are elected to the Senate.

Apart from the stipulation that at least one of these candidates be an upperclassman, such a system denies representation of minority opinions. Candidates who may espouse unconventional beliefs on sexual assault policy or mental health reform, for example, would stand a low chance of winning the election even if their stance was shared by a sizable portion of Stanford’s population. Would a candidate who favored stronger legal protections for alleged sexual assault perpetrators, or against over-diagnosing mental illness, ever win a Senate seat? Though these are undoubtedly minority opinions, they are held by sufficient Stanford students to merit representation amongst elected Senators’ platforms. The fact that it is inconceivable for any Senate candidate to support these non-majority, but nonetheless un-radical, views not only reveals the antidemocratic effects of PC culture, but showcases the historically-outdated and highly-regressive nature of our electoral system.

It is no secret that the Senate skews heavily to the left (likely to a greater degree than the student body does). Yet, instead of protecting minority conservative opinions on Senate, the ASSU voting system exacerbates the liberal bubble many students complain about. This year, only one of five SCR-endorsed candidates won through popular vote.

While it is true that the ASSU has historically focused on issues that are less divisive along liberal-conservative lines — including affordable living and dining accommodations for low-income students, and improving ASSU accountability and transparency — the hyper-charged campus political environment of late has pressed the ASSU to address more explicitly political problems. In November 2017, for example, the Senate wrestled over how to deal with a petition to defund Robert Spencer’s anti-Islamic speech. Emblematically, the ASSU’s condemnation of the Spencer event contrasts with its silence on Aarab Barghouti’s invitation to speak on behalf of Students for Justice in Palestine. More recently, the ASSU proposed a bill to the Senate to defund student groups if they invite speakers who violate the Fundamental Standard. These issues have brought the ASSU’s responsibility beyond the bureaucratic sphere and into the political realm. To adjudicate such sensitive political issues as these necessitates a Senate body that accurately reflects the political demographics of our campus.

The dubious nature of ASSU endorsements casts further doubts on the integrity of our election system. Receiving endorsements from groups like the SOCC enormously boost a candidate’s chance of winning. This year, all candidates SOCC endorsed were elected onto the Senate, as were seven out of the eight FLIP endorsed candidates. In evaluating their outsized influence on election results, it would be fair to analogize endorsement groups to political parties, as they provide reputational and institutional support to candidates otherwise unknown on campus. Yet unlike American political parties, which allow primary elections and host debates among candidates, SOCC and FLIP endorse candidates through private interviews and clandestine decision-making processes.

There is fruitful reason to distrust of this lack of transparency: in 2015, SOCC interviewers inquired whether then-ASSU candidate Molly Horwitz’s Judaism affected her stance on Israel divestment, leading to justified allegations of anti-Semitism. When, in light of the Horwitz debacle, the Review filed a Constitutional Council case against SOCC for withholding endorsement-related documents, the Council ruled that SOCC was not subject to the ASSU Constitution’s Freedom of Information provision. Despite clear evidence of its anti-democratic, and discriminatory effects, the endorsement process of these student groups remains unaccountable and opaque.

Defenders of the disproportionate influence of groups like SOCC on ASSU elections maintain that people of color and minority communities are simply more invested in student politics because ASSU policies affect their members to a greater degree. Yet the causality of this argument is backwards: ASSU candidates naturally promote policy platforms that appeal to certain minorities and endorsement groups, decreasing voter turnout amongst those who do not fit into those categories. It is unlikely, for example, that religious groups, the LGBTQ community, conservatives, or even Greek life, have no interest in campus politics. Rather, it is knowing that their interests won’t be well-represented in ASSU that discourages them from participating in elections in the first place. Rather than encouraging vigorous campus debate and civic participation, ASSU elections exacerbate the perception of political homogeneity on campus as candidates rehash the same policy platforms every year. This, in turn, decreases the legitimacy of the ASSU as a governing body that claims to represent the interests of all Stanford students.

Beyond an electoral system that does not protect minority interests, the ASSU has been plagued by accusations of voter disenfranchisement and misallocation of student funds. In this year’s election, students who took leaves of absence the quarter prior to the election, as well as some enrolled all year, did not receive their ballots on time. Moreover, the misallocation of ASSU funds and the inordinate amount of money student groups waste, as well as the ASSU’s indifference to such abuse, implies that our student government is a bystander to corruption. Safeguards against such corruption, as well as the fair and impartial implementation of electoral laws, are crucial indicators of vibrant democracy.

Even beyond ASSU elections, Stanford comes up short on political rights. On the issue of academic freedom, many professors impose their liberal ideologies on students, and it is no secret that conservatives face harsher grading and judgment from professors and peers for their minority views. Diamond corroborated this analysis, revealing his ” sense… that conservative students often tend to keep their views to themselves because there is not a fully open climate on campus to hear dissenting views, for example in dorms and student associations. If that is true, it’s not a healthy situation. ” This suggests that Stanford students do face retribution, and potentially social surveillance, for expressing non-status quo beliefs. The state of civil rights on the farm, though acceptable by de jure measures, would fail to satisfy de facto Freedom House metrics for a stable, healthy democracy.

Given our electoral system’s dubious integrity, the lack of plurality amongst our elected representatives, and the weakened state of civil rights on our campus, it is imperative we improve the state of Stanford’s democracy. While it may be difficult to concretely cure the social ailments that undermine political diversity, Stanford could secure universal ballot access via technical improvements and ensure greater accountability by monitoring the ASSU’s distribution of student funds. Examining alternative electoral systems would also help the opposition and non-traditional stakeholders achieve political power, changing the skewed comprisement of the ASSU’s Senators. For example, proportional representation would allow each slate to get a share of seats proportional to its share of the vote. This would, in turn, better represent various constituencies and simultaneously inspire greater voter turnout amongst conservatives, libertarians, religious minorities, veterans, and other underrepresented minorities.

Proportional representation necessitates the formation of political parties, which could heighten polarization. Nevertheless, there are ways to counteract this. For example, in Panachage, another variation of proportional representation, individuals would vote not just for parties or groups, but for individual candidates they prefer within each party list. Voters could distribute their votes to candidates from various party lists, increasing their autonomy from political affiliation. These analyses, however, are mere proposals. We aim to spark a discussion because we contend that electoral conduct is critical to our liberties as citizens of Stanford’s society.

The highest aim of a university education should be to cultivate a democratic culture and ethos amongst its students. Free and fair elections in student politics are key to this mission. Thus, we propose a class to be taught next year in which students study different electoral procedures and design an optimal system — one that is democratic, sensible, and transparent — to be deployed amongst the student body. We take pride in living in a democracy, but the de facto and de jure ails of our government are tangible and enumerable. It is time to reinstate our right to fair representation and civil liberties, preserving them in a new, truly democratic, student government.