On March 29 and 30, U-M students will vote for members of Central Student Government and some of the college-level assemblies. CSG has just adopted a new election system, Simply Voting, which looks like a significant aesthetic improvement over the hypnotic array of buttons that used to pass for a ballot. It’s refreshing that CSG is interested in changes to the voting procedure, and switching to Simply Voting is a good start. But CSG’s electoral issues, and those of some of the other student governments, begin at the constitutional level.
The constitutions of CSG, LSA Student Government, and Engineering Student Government enshrine a voting method called the Borda count. Under that system, if there are, say, 15 seats up for election, voters rank their preferred candidates one through 15, one being the best. A ranking of one is worth 15 points, two is worth 14, and so on. The total points for each candidate are added up, and the 15 candidates with the most points are the winners. Voters may rank fewer than 15 candidates.
It’s fashionable to support ranked choice voting methods such as the Borda count. Proponents say ranked choice voting helps pick popular, consensus candidates, and in robust electoral systems, perhaps that’s true. But U-M student governments are not model democracies. First, our voter-participation rate is abysmal. In the Winter 2022 CSG election (the last time the full assembly was on the ballot), there were a mere 2,728 votes cast for candidates out of approximately 50,000 total students — which is to say, 5 percent turnout. Therefore, it’s unlikely that U-M election results are representative of the student body.
Second, the few people who actually vote probably do so in a way that doesn’t justify ranked choice. How many students take the time to research the candidates and put them in a carefully reasoned order? I assume very few; the information on the candidates is too minimal, the differences between the candidates too difficult to ascertain, the stakes too low, the issues too insignificant, and the enthusiasm too pitiful for that to be realistic. Many students probably vote for just their one friend who’s on the ballot; selecting any additional candidates would hurt the friend’s chances under the Borda count, and if a lot of students are going to pick only one candidate, then ranking becomes irrelevant. Others may vote for a group of friends, but if friendship is their only criterion, there’s little justification for ranking one friend first and another last. And the enthusiastic students who really do vote for candidates off a party slate will have similar trouble ranking them.
Third, the Borda count can yield results that don’t reflect the voters’ choices because a candidate who receives the nth-most raw votes might do worse than nth place. For instance, in the Fall 2021 LSA SG election, when there were 15 seats open, the 13th-place finisher got more votes than the 10th-place candidate. According to the recent CSG election results that have been published on the internet, this hasn’t yet cost a student an election, but it easily could, and, in our unsophisticated electoral system, it’s unfair that the candidates who receive the most votes might not win.
Since ranked choice voting is too lofty an ambition for such flawed democracies as our student governments, they ought to switch to plurality block voting. Under that system, voters may select as many candidates as there are available seats, but there’s no ranking or weighting of votes. This would end the absurd fiction that ranking candidates is helpful at the university and, as a bonus, be much easier for voters.
Plurality block voting has significant flaws, one being that a party that gets a slight plurality of votes can win a disproportionate majority of seats. Last year, for example, Democrats won both races for the University of Michigan Board of Regents even though the two Democratic candidates together got only 49.72 percent of the vote. But real elections with high stakes and intense partisanship don’t reflect our situation at U-M. Of course, we could make student government more representative by strengthening political parties, introducing open party lists, and implementing proportional representation. And yet, for such a trivial organization, wouldn’t that be a pathetic waste of time and energy?
Fortunately, plurality block voting is a simple change that would make our elections more logical. Eliminating ranked choice voting is a daunting challenge because multiple student governments would have to amend their constitutions. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile, and the fact that CSG is willing to reform its electoral system is reason to be encouraged that it’s possible.