by Abe Asher
As we approach the beginning of March, we approach a new election season here at OES. Policy Board is currently working on setting an election calendar for 2016 for a number of positions.
Most notable across those positions is the role of Student Body President. The Presidency is the most visible elected role at OES, and this upcoming election will be the second held since both the voting system was reformed last year.
At the moment, after a difficult year, questions of both why we elect Presidents and what we elect Presidents to do are becoming increasingly important.
“Five or six years ago, we started to ask questions about the old structure of student council. We were concerned about gender equity and gender roles,” said Deb Walsh, Dean of Students and Policy Board Advisor.
Those were, and still are, pressing concerns. The last female Student Body President was elected nine years ago in 2006 — and it’s not that women aren’t running for President. In the last three years, six girls have run for the position and lost.
With an eye towards the lack of gender diversity in student government, one of the key tenants of an original proposal to reform the structure of Student Council was to do away with the Presidency entirely and mandate that one of the board chairs be female. It didn’t happen.
“Students revolted. Students across genders — primarily young women — rejected that idea. Young women spoke out against that idea as being a form of Affirmative Action,” Deb said.
Instead, the process would be reformed in different ways.
Last year’s OES Presidential election foretold, in many ways, the current mood of the US Presidential election.
In our election last year, an insurgent candidate who had no previous experience in student government — Cyrus J. — beat a large field comprised of a number of establishment candidates.
That victory was fueled by a widespread frustration with the way student government worked. Much of Cyrus’ campaign was about prosecuting what he and others saw as a lack of dynamism in the Student Council.
The election also exposed a number of potential downsides of the new alternative vote system which was passed through Policy Board last year.
The alternative vote, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference instead of voting for one person, works tremendously well when candidates are distinguished based on ideology.
In a national Presidential election, for instance, a liberal voter can rank the Green Party nominee first, but still have a voice by ranking the Democratic candidate second.
But our Presidential candidates hardly have ideologies, hurting the main motive for the alternative vote system — and when you combine a small electorate of some 315 Upper School students with a large field of candidates (eight last year) the ranking system begins to show its flaws.
Since the election last year was extremely close, the winning candidate’s number of first-place votes fell below 50%. There was no guarantee that the winning candidate even had the most first-place votes. It ended up mattering how students ranked their least-favorite candidates.
Should it matter if a person ranks a candidate sixth versus seventh? Seventh versus eighth? Can we reasonably expect students — especially underclassmen, who many not personally know the candidates — to form educated and thoughtful opinions on every single candidate?
The alternative vote is meant to build in a series of run-offs. But there’s very little doubt that voters weigh the choice between two candidates differently than they weight the choice between candidates four and five on a bigger ballot.
The alternative vote system is widely heralded throughout the world, and it may be the system best supported by political scientists in this country. It was thoroughly vetted by Policy Board last year. But it might not be a great fit for our unique voting situation.
Reforming the voting system was a reaction to the school Presidential election of 2014, in which the previous system — where the top two vote-getters compete in a run-off — was challenged in particularly bitter and acrimonious circumstances.
The old system — akin to a primary followed up by a general election — represented the votes of students in different, but possibly more impactful ways. But for the moment, the alternative vote is here to stay — and in a way, it accomplished one of its main goals.
“Students were definitely paying attention to questions of gender equity. Students said that the alternative vote is known for giving groups traditionally not in power,” Deb told me.
So while a woman wasn’t elected last year, an outsider candidate certainly was.
“People are generally satisfied with an alternative vote system. We haven’t reexamined it this year. Even though we want to remain in those conversations, we need to give systems predictability and stability to run.”
“What Policy Board is really thinking about right now is voter education,” said Deb.
That doesn’t mean the Board isn’t looking into fixing problems with the system. There was no absentee voting last year, a situation Policy Board is currently working to fix for the upcoming elections.
However, write-in candidates — a particular point of contention in 2014 — are no longer allowed. There was no space on last year’s electronic ballot to write a candidate in, meaning that the election fell somewhere short of completely free and open.
Because OES doesn’t release vote totals, we don’t know the breakdown of who voted for who last year. But it seems probable that women disproportionately vote for female candidates, and that underclassmen voted for a different candidate than upperclassmen. In any case, the electorate was most likely as splintered as its ever been.
That brings us back to square one: Should we even have a President?
The vast majority of his campaign promises long forgotten, Cyrus himself has changed his tune.
Cyrus told me, “We should have a president, because the leadership that the position provides when it comes to gathering, events, student council, and school spirit is valuable.”
But in his campaign statement last year, Cyrus struck a different tone. He said, “I understand that the president and the board don’t have infinite power, but that is no excuse… I believe the president is influential.”
He went on to write, “The faculty at OES listen to the president and Policy Board, and, while they won’t accept whatever Policy Board proposes, they will listen to logical arguments supporting ideas that students want, and I’ll make those arguments. The president needs to refocus the board and put what students care about first.”
But the candidate who derided the role as simply “clapping and pointing” in his campaign has done little more than clap and point in his first six months on the job. In fact, when asked what his most important accomplishment on the job had been to date, Cyrus noted several well-received speeches given to prospective students.
Cyrus also acknowledged that there is a common misconception about the stakes involved in the job. “I believe that the president is a valuable position, yet almost always overestimated in its importance. In discussing the role with my peers, they are often shocked that I have little to no actual power. I don’t even have priority in hearing about cases taken up by the DC.”
Most Presidents, of course, are accountable to their constituents. But at OES, with no re-election and no laws to execute, the President has very little accountability.
That’s not true of other positions of leadership at the school. If Community Board isn’t well run, we don’t have school dances. If The Dig isn’t well-run, we don’t have a newspaper.
Cyrus — and the Presidents that came before him since the implementation of the new system — have made very little long-term impact. In a sense, it matters little that Cyrus hasn’t carried out his agenda.
The truth of the job is that absent a will to get involved, the Presidency is, at least in terms of running the school, unnecessary.
The truth is this: We like having a President. The question is, why?
“It [the Presidency] is a very strong indication of our patriarchal mindset. A lot of that deep cultural mindset is single male leaders who are relied upon to hold up the best of what the community is or should be, and I don’t think that necessarily fits with the culture of OES,” said Deb.
“What I sense from students over and over again is pushback against hierarchical systems. There’s a paradox here that I think students should be grappling with — questioning authority, questioning singular power — and yet having a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings about a Student Body President.”
A lot of that pushback against hierarchical systems and concentrated power has happened this year. It hasn’t, though, happened in conjunction with student government after what amounted to a pushback vote last year.
“I really wish students would dig more deeply into why they are so attached to having a single student leader for the student body,” Deb said.
The original proposal — the one that would have mandated that one of the two board chairs be female — included, as Deb put it, “a shared executive role with different terminology. It was a concept of a shared executive role instead of a sole executive role.”
And in a way, that’s the system we do have. It’s the board chairs who hold virtually all of the power and responsibility in the current structure of student government. The President’s role is extremely limited no matter if the President wants to be heavily involved or not.
When asked why he ran for President, Cyrus said, “The main reason was that I believed it was a role that I could perform better than the other candidates.” Asked if the Presidency had been harder than he thought it would be, Cyrus pointed to the two board chairs.
He told me, “No [the job hasn’t been harder than he thought it would be], and I think a large reason as to why is the absolutely fantastic leadership that the class of 2016 is fortunate enough to have on Community Board and Policy Board. Nathan C. and Regina L… have proven to be incredibly capable and driven leaders.”
Asked why he hasn’t implemented much of his agenda, Cyrus told me, “Once I got elected, one of two things became of the issues I raised in my election: I realized they were overblown, or my aggressive campaign was enough to create the change I called for.”
What we know is that in the current setup, the President doesn’t naturally fit into the government structure anywhere.
“Executive positions work best when the executive has true accountability. It’s hard to have responsibility without creating and carrying out policy,” said Deb.
“I think that is where our current system gives rise to questions.”