Elections That Matter: The UC

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Voting that does not require an absentee ballot.

The democratic process has taken hit after hit this election cycle. Many of us have dreaded the arrival of our absentee ballots and put off sending them back due to our disillusionment with American politics and general fear for the future. (Hint: you all should have done that by now, though.) At a time when it is ever so important to make our voices heard, many are reluctant to speak up. But while those Official Election Mail envelopes have been sitting ignored in our mailboxes and desks, members of the Harvard community have been prepping for another election. This coming Tuesday, the dreaded November 8th, will bring another type of political action into play besides the election of a new American President (God help us all). That political action is the commencement of the Undergraduate Council candidate campaigns!

Prior to this, the petitions forms closed Monday night and the official candidacy declarations for UC President and Vice President closed on October 30th. The candidates for this cycle are interested in discussing the age-old but still important topics of financial accessibility and sexual assault prevention on campus. However, a few new initiatives have made this year a little different.

First, the UC will have a stipend of up to $1,500 for those whose need to hold a term time job would usually stop them from running for a UC position. Samartha Gupta ’18 is a campaign staff member for UC Presidential candidate Eduardo A. Gonzalez ’18 and his running mate Alex Popovski ’19. He points out that “financial accessibility for students in every part of Harvard” is incredibly important and needs to be addressed in a detailed manner. For example, the price of textbooks is a problem that students are forced to deal with every semester and it is one on which the UC wants to help alleviate some pressure.

Next, petition forms have been circulating to put certain points up to the voters. These range from the lighthearted to the divisive. For example, both the question of whether to make the Harvard Turkey the school mascot and whether to repeal the administration’s sanctions on single-gender organizations have received a great number of signatures.

However, the power of these referenda to actually enact change depends on the voter turnout. According to Ben Molin ’18, the Lowell House Representative, “The UC must take action on a ballot referenda question only if it receives a majority of the votes, and if a majority of the undergraduate student population votes. I don’t believe that the last UC presidential election had over a 50% turnout, so the results of any referenda questions were non-binding. However, even if we don’t get the 50% voter turnout, if a majority of voting students vote for something, that is a pretty good indicator that the UC should look into that issue. The referenda questions on the ticket are powerful, but people need to vote.” So if you feel passionately about the turkey, by all means vote on it.

Gupta agrees with Molin in that much of the result of these referenda will depend on the number of students who vote. Gupta is also unsure about how the referenda question regarding the administration’s sanctions will play out, because the Administration has put a lot of time into the sanction policy and its implementation. However, members of the UC – specifically the President and Vice President – are often invited to faculty council meetings (like one held on Monday) and are also currently a part of the sanctions Implementation Committee. In this way, the UC candidates allow for greater communication between students and administrators. Therefore, Gupta believes the election will be important during this transitional period.

The apathetic attitude Harvard students have towards the Undergraduate Council is not a new phenomenon. The UC has often been criticized for being pointless, ineffective, and superficial in the past. However, the political stress the national presidential election has put on American citizens this year may be leaking into the simple collegiate democratic process. Students are perhaps less likely to see UC candidates as advocates for their concerns and goals. The pertinence of the specific issues at hand that matter to the students, in ways the University may not understand, should – nevertheless – bring student voters to the (virtual) polls.

One freshman, Arnav Agrawal ’20, as an elected representative to the UC wants to emphasize the ubiquitous nature of topics with which the UC deals. She states, “This election is significant in that it is a significant opportunity to foster greater campus conversation around issues that matter to the student community. These include policies related to feminine hygiene products, mental health, peer and academic advising, single-gender organizations, textbook costs, final exam hours, dining issues, accessible and inclusive social spaces and addressing challenges posed by sexual assault, etc.” It is in this time and in this landscape that students need to work to make their voices and opinions heard. It is for that exact purpose that the UC functions. Agrawal continues, “In addition to voting for candidates for President and Vice-President, students can also make their voice heard on larger campus issues that involve the entire College. There has been a significant increase in student interest and involvement in the UC and the election process, which reflects the growing perception of the relevance of the UC’s actions to the lives of students. Greater student involvement also means that the UC’s initiatives are taken more seriously by the administration and the basic process of voting thus creates long lasting positive externalities.”

Though students may be unimpressed with past actions of both the administration and the UC, the way to change that is not through inaction. These UC members would urge readers, therefore, to look beyond November 8th, and to continue striving to make a difference in our communities.

Caroline Cronin ([email protected]) applauds the democratic system that can amplify the voice of passionate students above the paternal speech of administrators.