Rethinking ASCSU elections

Apr 022008
Authors: Seth Anthony

ASCSU – our student government – is about to run some very imperfect elections.

No, I’m not talking about turnout, but, if past years have been any indicator, only a small fraction of us will participate.

The imperfection arises from the number of candidates running. Bizarrely, even though there are no competitive races for the ASCSU Senate, there are four tickets campaigning for president and vice-president of ASCSU.

If the Collegian poll last week is any indication, none of the four ASCSU tickets will receive a majority of the vote. On the surface, that may not seem like such a bad thing – the candidate who gets the most votes still wins, right? The problem, though, is that people can still like candidates who aren’t their favorites, and the election won’t take this into account.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the results next week come out just like they did in the Collegian’s poll. If Jarred and Estevan, with 36 percent, narrowly edge out Taylor and Quinn’s 35 percent, then they’ll win.

But this doesn’t take into account the preferences of the other 29 percent of voters. Suppose they prefer Taylor and Quinn, even by a narrow margin? It doesn’t require use of differential equations to see that, in that situation, if only the top two tickets were running, Taylor and Quinn would win.

This problem can seem abstract, but to see how bizarre it is, imagine going downtown to Walrus and having to choose between vanilla and chocolate ice cream. You choose: “I’ll have a cone of vanilla, please.” But before the server scoops it out for you, he tells you: “Oh, hey, we also have some strawberry, too.”

If your mind worked the way our voting system worked, a good portion of the time, you’d respond with “Well, in that case, I’ll have chocolate instead.” In reality, having an additional choice of strawberry might lead you to choose it over vanilla, but it wouldn’t cause you to change your preference to chocolate.

This problem rears its head everywhere from student government to the presidency. It’s fairly easy to make the case that George W. Bush would never have been elected president if Ralph Nader voters had been able to indicate they usually preferred Gore over Bush in 2000. For all you Republicans, Bill Clinton probably never would have made it to the White House if it hadn’t been for Ross Perot’s independent candidacy in 1992.

Fortunately, there are ways of holding elections that bypass many of these problems. Some voting systems do this by having the top two finishers face each other in a second runoff election. But runoff elections are expensive, time-consuming and rarely see the turnout of the first. For ASCSU, the already miniscule turnout would drop even further.

An easier way is by using an “instant runoff” voting method, where each voter ranks the candidates from favorite to least favorite. People who vote for the less popular candidates then have their second and third preferences considered.

With online voting, like we use in ASCSU, it’d be easy to use instant-runoff voting. In general elections, it just means small changes on ballots to be able to rank-order candidates. Rep. John Kefalas has introduced a bill here in Colorado to allow cities and counties to do just that.

Candidates in instant-runoff races have reported that, because second and third choices can be important, that it’s more important for them to talk to every voter and remain positive.

Instant-runoff voting can help generate more civil campaigns and give us representatives more in tune with the voters. It’s used to elect representatives in Ireland and Australia, in San Francisco and in North Carolina. Universities from Harvard to Caltech use it in their student governments.

There’s really no excuse for electing one candidate when a majority of voters prefer someone else. It’s time for ASCSU to lead the way in creating a better democracy, and adopt instant-runoff voting.

Seth Anthony is a chemistry Ph.D. student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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