|Abstain Means Abstain|
|Written by Christopher Snyder|
|Friday, March 05, 2010 02:39 PM|
When you abstain from eating meat, you don't eat meat. When you abstain from working, you don't work. And when you abstain from voting, you don't vote.
But in my time observing student government at Tufts, I have encountered an alternate definition, where abstaining from voting is called a vote. And I don't understand it.
The trouble stems from referenda, which either can force the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate to take action or can change student government's constitution. Either way, it is important, which is why it is up the student body to decide whether a referendum should pass.
A majority vote in favor passes a resolution. By itself, this could lead to votes held in secret, where only supporters know when to vote. To deter this, the TCU Constitution contains the minimum-vote clause, mandating that at least a quarter of the student body must vote on the referendum for the outcome to be valid. Effectively, the referendum's sponsors have to convince students to vote affirmatively for what the sponsors propose. Referendum proponents cannot just sit back and let a small number of people trump a smaller number of people who would have publicly opposed the referendum if they had prior notice.
This is where the definition of “abstain” comes in. If you choose not to vote yes or no, you can select “Abstain” on the ballot, clearly indicating that you do not wish to vote on the referendum. (Sometimes, you can also skip the question without touching anything, but this isn't always an option). But under some interpretations, “Abstain” is a choice, and therefore a vote, even though your “vote” was to abstain from voting.
This becomes a problem during TCU presidential election time, when well over a quarter of the student body casts a ballot. This past year, nearly 48 percent of students registered a vote for Brandon Rattiner, Chas Morrison or Samia Zahran. So by categorizing “abstain” as a vote, any referendum presented on that presidential ballot would need only a majority to pass. There is no safeguard against a poorly advertised referendum. Opponents lose the ability to organize a “vote no” drive.
Because of this, the TCU Constitution was almost changed in April 2008. In this instance, a referendum was placed on the presidential ballot with no advanced notice to students. (It would have been a controversial referendum, too) In 2008, there were multiple problems with the vote, as well as a separate procedural problem, so the Committee on Student Life (CSL) nullified the vote. However, the referendum demonstrated that there is no true defense against a poorly announced referendum. The minimum-vote clause is our only protection.
If “Abstain” is considered a vote, referendum sponsors do not have to demonstrate why the referendum is beneficial. Instead, the burden of proof is on those who oppose the referendum to support the status quo. This system is highly problematic. For example, if I proposed eliminating Senate elections, instead adopting Brown University's model where all students can join student government via petition, should my idea be implemented simply due to a lack of well-organized opposition? Shouldn't I instead have to prove to the student body why my idea is worthwhile?
“Abstain” means to not act. This definition is supported by respected parliamentary procedure guide Robert's Rules of Order and by the dictionary. Thus, the minimum-vote can only be satisfied by affirmative or negative votes. There is no way, short of changing the TCU Constitution, for this to be otherwise.
The Elections Commission (ECOM) recently updated its bylaws to mandate that referenda be announced in advance, which is a positive step toward better student awareness of referenda. But bylaws can be changed at any time. Just a couple of years ago, a previous ECOM decided to not disclose vote counts for referenda, a decision which was thankfully reversed in a recent bylaw update.
And so it is the minimum-vote clause, the 25 percent of students who must vote on a referendum, on which we ultimately rest our security. Let abstentions take their rightful place and we ensure that only the student body can change the TCU Constitution.