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Oregon Daily Emerald

'Choice Voting' gives students representation, reason to vote
Guest Opinion by John Russell
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 students.

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 seats.

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 don't vote.

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

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