c/o wesleyan.edu

c/o wesleyan.edu

This year the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) decided to eliminate ranked-choice voting for senatorial races after creating the resolution to instate ranked-choice voting only a year ago. Although only a few election cycles have utilized ranked-choice voting, the WSA came to the conclusion that it was a logistical burden for the group when it came to senatorial elections and also made the election process less equitable. 

Each year, the WSA has a large election in the fall followed by smaller ones in the winter and spring. In addition, spots are sometimes filled by appointment if they open up in between election times. In an attempt to encourage freshmen to run for office, the WSA  reserves seats for the incoming class. 

“So every year, it’s eight or nine seats [that] are reserved for incoming freshmen,” WSA Community Committee (CoCo) Chair Sophie Chang ’24 said. “That’s really good because it ensures that people from different classes are joining and that we can keep [the] WSA running with younger students every year.”

In the past, these elections have followed traditional procedures: each student gets to vote for the number of spots that are open and each vote is equal. However, in 2020 the WSA passed a resolution to move to ranked-choice voting instead.

Ranked-choice voting is an electoral procedure that allows voters to rank multiple candidates on the ballot instead of voting for just one. To calculate the results of a single position race, the votes are tallied and whoever has the fewest number of first-choice votes is taken off the ballot. Then, votes for the losing candidate are eliminated and redistributed to whoever those voters ranked second on their ballot. This process continues until a candidate has over 50% of the vote. However, when multiple seats are available, this process gets more complicated. 

“When you have a multi-member district, where you have eight people running, you actually don’t remove the bottom person,” Academic Affairs Committee Chair (AAC) Ben Garfield ’22 said. “You remove the top person. So it sets a threshold of a percentage to get on the first ballot that was like 20% or something. Anyone who’s reached that [threshold] was then removed. And then you bring their votes down and allocate them throughout and you keep changing your threshold until you have candidates elected.” 

This already complicated system was made even more arduous because the WSA was unable to find any software that would tally the ballots for them. This led to hours of counting and adding and reallocating ballots by hand before any winners were found. So why go through this whole process in the first place?

“In spring 2020 there was a presidential election in which there was one candidate, and that’s normal; we usually have one candidate in a presidential and vice-presidential race,” Garfield said.“But that person in the midst of running, there was some stuff that came out that then led to them dropping out of the race a day into the election being open, which left no candidates at all.” 

This led members of the WSA to question the election process and consider reform. In the past few years, there has been a common theme across the United States of progressive electoral districts—for example, New York City—adopting ranked-choice voting. While the process is quite complicated, it has proved to be successful in encouraging more candidates to run. This success is exactly what the WSA hoped would happen at Wesleyan.

“We’d put other things in place that would have prevented that [having no candidates to run] from happening since,” said Garfield. “But one of the issues was that if we had the ability to rank multiple candidates, that might not have necessarily happened because maybe more people would run.” 

While most of the WSA was quite enthusiastic about the change, and the resolution passed almost unanimously, there were still questions of how the shift would affect the electoral process.

“There was debate over it at the time, over if we thought ranked-choice voting would turn things into more or less of a popularity contest,” Garfield said. “And the conclusion was that it’s not going to change because, by default, any election is a popularity contest. Whether it’s the WSA election or the American presidential election, at the end of the day, that’s really what it is.”

However, this past election proved to be anything but simple. With only eight open spots, there were over twenty freshmen who ran, which is far more than the WSA is used to seeing. The abundance of candidates made both the voting process and the vote-counting system difficult.

“I didn’t love it ’cause it made it a lot more confusing to vote, and it was hard to fill out the form, and it just seems logistically difficult,” Emmett Levy ’24, who voted in the past few WSA elections, said. 

Not only were there logistical issues, but members of the WSA also found that ranked-choice voting was less equitable.

“Because of how tricky it was, it turned out to be inequitable,” Chang said. “I’m not really sure why this happened, but you could get the most votes out of anyone and still lose because of how the ranking works and it happened a couple of times where a student of color would get more votes but then ended up losing to a student who was not of color. So that presented an issue.”

The resolution was voted out following the Fall election of 2021.

“We just didn’t think that this way it was as representative as the way that it was before, so we decided to get rid of that for the general election,” Chang said.

With ranked-choice voting gone, elections returned to how they had been in the past. While this might seem like a bit of a disastrous turnaround, in reality, it is indicative of something Chang likes most about the organization.

“We decided to try it out but a lot of the projects that people work on are kind of trial and error,” Chang said. “We thought, ‘this is a really good idea, so let’s try it,’ but it doesn’t always work out, and that’s okay. I’m glad we did it.”

Lia Franklin can be reached at lfranklin@wesleyan.edu. 

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