May the Best Man Win, Please?

Amid final exams and the GSI strike, it might have escaped your notice just how different this year’s Central Student Government elections were from last year’s. Eighty candidates ran for the CSG Assembly, compared with just 40 in 2022. (There are 45 seats in the Assembly.) Among them, 61 were affiliated with registered political parties: 27 with the Independence Union, 23 with Forward Together, and 11 with Respect.

Voter participation was similarly impressive: Turnout in LSA, the Rackham Graduate School, and the Ross School of Business each roughly doubled from last year, while university-wide votes on non-binding ballot questions more than tripled.

Before the election, I outlined my criticisms of the Borda count, the voting method that’s used to fill 31 Assembly seats. In this system, voters rank their preferred candidates first to last, so candidates win by combining votes as first choice and as a high-ranking alternative. I argued the Borda count was unfair since the candidates who earned the most votes wouldn’t necessarily win, and the fact that such a scenario was unprecedented didn’t mean it was unlikely. Alas, alack, like a stab in the back, it finally happened — twice.

In the College of Engineering (where seven seats were contested), Independence Union candidate Nicholas Debelak got the seventh-most votes, but the Borda count kicked him down to ninth place, costing him a seat. Unaffiliated candidate Liliana Zamora won instead, despite getting fewer votes than both Debelak and losing candidate Mark Farag (Independence Union). And in LSA (14 seats), Independence Union candidate Tyler Fioritto got the 13th-most votes but ended up in 16th place because of the Borda count. Fioritto received more votes than three higher-ranked candidates: winners Patrick Szendro-Arceo and Ilir Ziba (both Independence Union) and the defeated Abigail O’Connell (Respect).

So, in a more rational world, Debelak and Fioritto would have beaten Zamora and Ziba. At least that’s how it would’ve gone using plurality block voting, which, as I previously wrote, would be the most practical voting method for Assembly elections. But if voter participation and competitiveness increase to the point that CSG decides it’s worth overhauling the entire election system, then it will be worth considering a fairer way to allocate seats.

In my last article, I briefly described a plan for proportional representation. My ideal system would resemble the one used to elect the Czech Chamber of Deputies. Students would each vote for one political party, and the Assembly seats would be distributed proportionally among the parties. Parties would have ranked their candidates before the election, so if a party won n spots in the Assembly, then candidates ranked one through n on the party list would be seated. But voters could cast additional “preferential votes” for their favorite candidates, and if those candidates met some threshold they would win automatically, even if they were at the bottom of the list.

Unlike the Borda count and plurality block voting, proportional representation doesn’t let parties win an unrepresentative majority of seats — something that happened this year, when Forward Together took 11 of the 14 LSA seats despite winning well under 79 percent of the popular vote — and preferential votes reward consensus candidates the way the Borda count tries and fails to.

I’m not  convinced that proportional representation would give us better governance. Yes, turnout was comparatively impressive, but still not exactly high. While a staggering 7,486 students voted for CSG president (the race with the most participation), that was only 15 percent of the student body; an Assembly proportionally reflecting the views of less than one-sixth of students wouldn’t be inherently more representative than the Assembly we just elected. Even if turnout doubles, I’ll be skeptical that proportional representation is worth the logistical difficulties and drawbacks of entrenching political parties in our system.

Regardless, political parties might be here to stay. I was wrong in my last article when I assumed parties wouldn’t have much influence on voting patterns, but this year affiliated candidates dominated the elections over independents. And with partisanship and voter engagement increasing, it’s especially urgent that CSG replace the Borda count with a fairer, more democratic system.

Disclosure: Gabriel Ervin, the founder of the Independence Union and its presidential candidate, is a contributor to the Michigan Review. My opinion on which candidates should have been elected is due entirely to the voting method and is in no way an endorsement of the Independence Union.

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About Alex Stamell

Alex Stamell is editor in chief emeritus of the Michigan Review.