DePaul SGA and the problem with secret ballots


DePaul’s Student Government Association (SGA) convened Thursday night and faced a packed gallery of student spectators, sitting in firm protest. They had come for the third item on the evening’s agenda: an amendment to the organization’s constitution — delayed from the week prior — that would have changed the group’s voting procedure, essentially allowing each vote on any and all resolutions to be preceded by general body closed vote, deciding whether the actual vote would be open or closed.

After 90 minutes of heated discussion, the amendment was struck down by the slim margin of a single vote. But as the general body went into a recess and the protesters began to filter out, there were no cheers or satisfied grins. By the time the vote was called, they had all shared an important realization: the problem at hand would not be solved by killing one bad solution.

The main dilemma was that SGA’s constitution already provides for closed votes on a relatively broad spectrum. The decision is currently made at the president’s discretion. Proponents of the new amendment believed the revised voting procedure would accomplish two critical and well-intentioned goals: first, it would make the process more democratic by taking power out of the hands of the president with a simple majority vote of the general body. Second, supporters claimed that it would give student members a layer of protection from “outside pressures” as well as pressures from their peers, allowing them to vote without facing any backlash. Well-intentioned, yes. But democratic? Far from it.

[box]Read: SGA fails to pass controversial voting amendment[/box]

There are a myriad of concerns associated with allowing an elected body to indulge in anonymous voting. They can be summarized by two words: accountability and transparency. Suggesting that members of an elected body have the right to shield themselves from the decisions they make on behalf of the student body is categorically absurd. It doesn’t matter who you are, who you are representing or what decisions you are making; it is contrary to the fundamentals of any democracy to vote on a group’s behalf and subsequently hide those votes from the group.

Make no mistake, the members of SGA are elected representatives within a democratic government. They may be student representatives within student government, but by no means does that alter their function. Arguments can be made in defense of student fragility, certainly; SGA senators are not public servants, and perhaps certain concessions can be made. However, when a senator votes, they are making a decision that effects their constituents. That is unquestionable. The student body, in turn, deserves to know how their senator is voting in order to evaluate whether or not their representaitive is voting in their best interests. It is that simple.

Giving the general body rather than the president power to decide whether to have an open or closed vote sounds great, theoretically. For those interested in maintaining transparency and openness, putting the decision in the hands of a group seems like a step in the right direction, preventing any one person from abusing the power unilaterally. However, the reality of the provision would have had less accountability than there is in the current constitution, as pointed out by one spectator.

“To the argument that (the amendment) is the lesser of two evils: I don’t think we’re really taking into account the fact that you’re taking away one person’s accountable decision and adding it to a group of people who will make a closed vote,” DePaul sophomore Thomas Rietz said. “This is basically saying that, instead of one person being held accountable whether or not a vote be held open or closed, there is extra layer of ambiguity by saying an entire group of people decides whether or not something is closed. That isn’t transparent.”

When a group of people is anonymously voting on the status of a vote, there’s absolutely no reason to have an open vote. In what world would any rational being not choose to make a decision without personal consequence?  It’s a free pass with a side of absolute impunity.

The good intentions of the proposed amendment cannot be ignored. Protection is as noble a goal as any, but it cannot come at the cost of a democratic process, even in student government. Being a student representative is by no means an easy job but, by the same merit, it cannot afford to be.

As listed in Section II of the SGA constitution, “members will be personally responsible for their actions.” They would do well to recognize that by considering a ban on closed voting altogether. It’s time for SGA to honor its constituents through absolute transparency.