Last week, freshmen on the 40 Acres cast their ballots to elect our two first-year representatives for Student Government. The winners, Adam Bergman and Alex Street, collectively received less than 25 percent of the vote from those who participated in the election. For a position designed to represent the interests of the freshman class on campus, that task is complicated when candidates have neither much connection to on-campus issues, nor a majority of their peers backing them.
Shoumik Dabir, one of this year’s candidates for first-year representative, noted that it was nearly impossible to craft a platform to campaign off of, as the election itself boiled down to a “popularity contest.” It makes sense. With only a month to campaign and a small margin of victory required, the election lends itself to benefit those with a quick connection to an organization — say an honors group or Greek life.
Holden Hopkins, one of the class of 2020’s first year representatives, is both in Plan II and the Business Honors Program. He explains that the “300 or so students” in those programs “made up the bulk of (his) base” of voters in his 2016 campaign — and he’s not alone. This year’s winners are both members of Greek life organizations, and SG has historically been dominated by the group. The current election system encourages Longhorns who are running for office not to branch out, learn about student issues and meet many of their classmates, but instead to rely on a base of people they share an organization with.
One of the driving factors playing into this effect is the voting system itself. SG uses a first-past-the-post voting system to elect representatives, which only requires the winner to have more votes than their opponents, not an actual majority of votes cast. Street and Bergman — the aforementioned winners of this election — respectively won just 12 and 11 percent of the student vote out of a field of 13 candidates. While Hopkins notes that they still obtained the votes of over 1,200 freshmen — that’s still less than a quarter of the class of 2021.
How could these issues be fixed? Perhaps the most sure-fire way to encourage our first-year representative elections to be more than a popularity contest is to ensure the winning candidates receive an actual majority of support from their peers. A Single Transferable Vote system poses a possible solution. By allowing voters to rank candidates on the ballot in order of personal preference, the STV method of voting ensures that when no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the worst performing candidate is eliminated and voters’ second choices are taken into account — meaning that votes aren’t wasted, and the winner actually entertains broad support. Already employed internationally, this system could help ensure candidates reach out to fellow freshmen and not just drive up support from a single organization or program
As a current freshman, I wish our newly elected representatives the best of luck in listening to and representing the concerns of a diverse student body. While former Rep. Hopkins notes that past first-year representatives “have been incredibly dedicated” to serving the interests of their class, it would be nice to have a system that served those same interests.
Buckner is a Plan II and government freshman from Austin. He is a columnist.