Election imperfection

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February 18, 2010

11:36 PM

The honor system of the College of William and Mary composes the backbone of our character as an institution. It’s the embodiment of our founding ideals, and something of which we are proud to be a part. But despite being the oldest system of its kind in the country, it is still imperfect. That fact was again highlighted by yesterday’s Honor Council elections, the current structure of which amounts to nothing more than a simple popularity contest.

The Honor Council’s electoral process was established with the best of intentions. Candidates are not allowed to campaign; no information is released about them until election day, on which a short personal statement and picture are listed next to their name on the ballot. The motive here is to create, without the pomp and glad-handing of campaigning, an election based purely on merit.

The effect is exactly opposite: So little is known about the candidates that voting based on superficial aspects — name recognition or, sure, even attractiveness — seem encouraged. What substantive information is provided comes in a deluge. Asking students to read 200 words per candidate before voting, when there are up to 30 students running for the eight freshmen seats, lengthens the process to an almost absurd degree.

This is a poor system. It short changes substance in favor of quick, unconsidered decisions, and should not be a part of forming our otherwise reputable Honor Council. The reason it remains in use is because it is difficult to pinpoint a precise improvement. Inviting any campaign into the process is opposed to the ideal of blind, impartial justice.

But there are options. Releasing the candidates’s personal statements before the election itself, instead of only having them available during the process of voting, would help to ensure people actually read them. Better yet, introducing a forum discussion, in which students could hear and question each candidate, would be a welcome change. Yes, this introduces an element of politicization, but it would ultimately lead to a more informed voting process.

We don’t pretend to have the perfect answer in either these suggestions. There may, in fact, be no ideal candidate, which is why the Honor Council trains its candidates so extensively. Each is put through an extensive 45-day training process in preparation for service, perhaps in recognition that whoever is selected won’t be perfect. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also strive to select those students best suited for the job, regardless of training.

Amending the election process will not be an easy process, as anyone who remembers the Honor Council’s recent bylaw revision attempt will attest. But we shouldn’t allow that to forestall this change. An investigative committee — with contribution from the Honor Council, Student Assembly, at-large students and faculty members, but comprised mainly of students — should be created to weigh these and other options. They should try to compose a voting system worthy of the country’s oldest honor system, and surely that’s a lofty goal, but providing some improvement couldn’t be hard. Anything’s better than just voting on a picture and a blurb.

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