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Representative referenda

April’s referenda came and went with no great shock to the University community. Neither the appeal to divest from private prisons nor the call to create a taskforce to reevaluate disciplinary action around the Honor Code succeeded. However, controversy has arisen over the fact that, in both cases, there was a majority in favor of change among students who voted. The referenda failed because, in both cases, they did not achieve the required participation of a third of the student body.

It has been suggested that this threshold needs to be decreased. It is too hard to get enough people to participate in democracy at Princeton. Very few referenda succeed; thus, there must be a problem with the system. The solution is to lower the minimum requirement for the size of the voting body to some figure less than a third of the student body.

But this is an absurd proposition. It mistakes equal access to political participation for equal representation. It confuses the fact that we can all vote for the idea that these referenda, with so view voters, actually indicate the opinion of the student body. Yes, anybody can vote, but if they do not vote, one simply cannot base the consensus on the verdict of a tiny minority and claim that it democratically represents the view of the population.

Those in favor of decreasing the voting requirement hold on to the fact that, of the people voting, the majority of people vote for change, and the ‘high’ one-third requirement prevents the consensus from manifesting in action. Yet this perspective makes a gross assumption about the views of those who abstain from voting and assumes that those who do vote are a representative sample of the community. This assumption is unfounded and self-serving in favor of those who would pass the referenda.

The fact that a majority of the students who vote are in favor does not mean that this represents the preferences of the entire student body. There are intuitive reasons why those in favor of a referendum would be more inclined to vote. Those who want change feel a greater urgency to act, because only by acting can change occur. Conversely, those who prefer the status quo feel secure in their position, as a lack of action generally leads to the status quo staying the same. It is less intuitive and motivating to ask ‘how do I prevent this?’ when in disagreement with a proposition, than it is to ask ‘how do I make this happen?’ when one is in favor.

Those in opposition are also less likely to vote because, as was the case in the last referenda, to participate would be against their interests. A small increase in the number of ‘no’ voters brings the referendum to the one-third requirement, but does not change the majority view of those voters. Thus, for an individual opposing the referenda, to vote without being sure that other ‘no’ voters will also vote would be against their interests.

All of this logic suggests that those who do not vote are more likely to oppose the referenda, though this too is based on speculation. There is no substitute for the votes of the vast majority of students who do not participate in referenda voting. The only valid way to represent their opinions is to know what their opinions are. We cannot claim to be representative if we give up and render non-voting students’ opinions redundant by allowing policy to pass with the consent of a vocal, but potentially non-representative, minority.

The only solution to the serial failure of Princeton referenda is to get students to vote. We need to determine why there is such a high level of apathy among Princeton students toward student politics. I would suggest that students are disenfranchised with democracy at Princeton in general. When we are voting in class elections that have only one candidate for each position, we develop the understanding that we’re not really voting for anything. From the class of 2017, Nathan Suek, Caroline Snowden, Nusrat Ahmed and Ariel Hsing ran uncontested for their positions. They were followed by Kevin Liu and Adnan Sachee in 2018, and Susan Liu, Nicole Kalhorn, Carly Bonnet and Chelsea Ng in 2019. All of these students walked into supposedly elected positions without competition, and each one of them could, hypothetically, have been elected with but a single vote from over 5000 undergraduates. They make up 66 percent, 10 out of 15, of elected class government positions, excluding U-Councilors — an election which had only seven people running for 10 positions, with all seven attaining office.

A myriad of issues arises from this woefully uncompetitive election, but the most relevant one in this case is that in electing these ten people, our votes did not count. Assuming that at least one person voted in approval, there was nothing anyone could do to change the outcome. This does not create a motivated political culture, one in which voters feel enfranchised and empowered. It is more likely to leave students feeling that their participation is pointless. This is a problem because the class elections were launched in conjunction with the referenda. Consequently, students were faced with the choice of whether or not to vote on the referenda, having just participated in a class election in which they likely feel their vote hardly made a difference. It is no wonder that we have a problem with a lack of interest in student politics. Repairing the value of a vote at Princeton is a first of many steps to repairing this.

When faced with the issue of having less than a third of the student body participating in referenda, the solution is not to minimize the voting requirement so that the ranks of Government Club become sufficient to pass policy that affects all Princetonians. We need to take on the real challenge and get students to vote, because the only way to make political choices that reflect the views of students is to know the views of students. We need to get them interested, and this requires reevaluating the quality of student politics. Every week we hear of new task forces being created, new boards, offices and titles, but the task force we really need is one that critically evaluates the student political system and refines the system to the extent that students see it as useful.

If we held a referendum of Princeton’s parking policy tomorrow, it seems highly likely, based on the vigorous response to the policy announcement, that more than a third of the student body would be willing to vote. The parking petition received more than 1,200 votes in less than 24 hours, with almost no campaigning or advertising at all. Clearly, we have the intrinsic motivation. We need to awaken this motivation, not give up on it, when the next pertinent campus political decision comes around.

Samuel Parsons is a freshman from Wangaratta, Australia. He can be reached