Oregon Daily Emerald
'Choice Voting' gives
students representation, reason to vote
Guest Opinion by
April 14, 2003
With student government elections under way, young
people across the country are being asked to vote for student
representatives. But many times this plea is answered with a more
difficult question: "Why should I vote? It doesn't count."
While sometimes seen as a sign of apathetic young people or a
lament about the limited powers of student governments, examining
this statement can reveal a deeper political problem. One of the
basic ideas of democracy, that the people vote and then receive
representation, is not being realized by the current political
system. Rather than expressing apathy, students are being realistic
about how much impact their vote has.
Under the current winner-take-all plurality voting system used in
most U.S. elections, a candidate who wins a bare 51 percent majority
can receive 100 percent of the representation. As many as 49 percent
of votes do not lead to a voice in government. For these people,
their votes do not count.
But a new political reform idea gaining momentum on college
campuses can ensure that all votes count and all voters are
represented. Choice voting, a form of full representation, was
passed overwhelmingly last month by the Associated Students of
University of California-Davis. Instead of just marking one
candidate on the ballot, the system allows voters to rank candidates
in order of preference. These preferences are then used to award
seats. If there are 10 seats to be filled, a candidate needs the
support of about a tenth of students to win a seat. If there are
five seats, a candidate will win with the support of 20 percent of
Choice voting dramatically increases the chance that a ballot
will lead to representation. If a smaller group of like-minded
voters prefer a candidate, they can win at least one seat. Also, if
a voter's first choice is not strong enough to win, their second
choice is considered. Ranking candidates ensures that more than 90
percent of ballots lead directly to representation when electing 10
This is significant for student governments, where elections are
often dominated by a particular campus group. The winner-take-all
system allows a dominant group to win a vast majority of seats.
Under choice voting, smaller student groups can consolidate their
support and win representation. The typical result is a more diverse
student government representing more views.
Harvard, Princeton, University of Illinois, Carleton College and
Vassar all use choice voting or another form of full representation.
Even more schools use instant runoff voting. On the international
scene, the United States and Canada are the only major democracies
still using winner-take-all exclusively for national elections, and
nearly all British universities elect student government personnel
with choice voting.
While the low voter turnout of 18-24-year-olds in national
elections is seen as a crisis, these numbers are just as compelling
in student elections. Each spring, there is usually an article or
editorial about whether student government elections really matter.
But under the winner-take-all electoral system, student governments
don't represent enough of the students, and therefore, students
Implementing choice voting and providing representation to all
students would help reverse this trend. Winning a seat at the table
is a powerful incentive to care about the decisions made there.
A recent graduate of the University of Iowa, John Russell is the
student outreach coordinator at the Center for Voting and Democracy.
For more information, visit http://www.fairvote.org/schools/studhome.htm.