Election reform must start within Student Assembly


John Powers ’26 is a public policy major hailing from Brooklyn, NY. Besides serving as Chief Opinions Writer, he sits on the executive board of the Undergraduate Moot Court Society, works as a Resident Assistant, and is a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. John is a huge Adele fan. Email him at jdpowers@wm.edu.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

As The Flat Hat previously reported, three student senators resigned from the William and Mary Student Assembly in January, and a fourth resigned in December. Two of these senators represented the class of 2026, which left my class without half of our representation. I, along with most of the class of 2026, appreciate the service of our former senators and wish them well as they embark on their next endeavors. What should not be appreciated, though, is the poorly executed and flawed appointment process of their successors. 

Thursday, Dec. 21, Class President Zoe Wang announced an application process for former Sen. Jiexi Lin’s seat in an email to sophomores. A follow up email sent in January read in part, “the deadline to apply to be our appointed 2026 Senator is THIS WEEKEND!” Take note that it read “our appointed 2026 Senator” and not “our appointed 2026 senators.” Clearly, the application process was meant to appoint a single senator. Yet, Wang announced later that both vacancies had been filled in a recent email without further explanation. 

Former Sen. Ashlynn Parker’s resignation came after the application process had already started, so one could assume that Wang picked the top two applicants for both senatorial seats instead of just the seat that opened after the application process ended. Nevertheless, a second application process should have been initiated, or at least the application deadline should have been extended. That way, sophomores who may have reconsidered applying could have gotten the chance to represent their class. 

Beyond the poor execution of the recent appointments, these developments call into question the very nature of the appointment process itself. According to Article V Section II Part III of the Student Assembly Constitution, class presidents must fill senate vacancies by appointment. Special elections may be held only when “an Undergraduate Class Presidency is vacant, or if another class office or class Senate seat is vacant prior to that year’s Freshman Elections.” 

This clause ought to be amended through a referendum. To begin, other universities use alternative processes to fill vacancies. According to the University of Virginia Student Council Bylaws, vacancies may be filled by appointment or special election. At Washington and Lee University, student representative vacancies are filled through a by-election within two weeks. I’ll admit that appointments are a more common solution, but this is no reason to dismiss the alternative. 

Special elections are consistent with the ideas of democracy and self-governance. Giving students the chance to select their representatives means they have a direct say in how the Senate improves student life on campus, directs funding and protects student rights. A lot has changed at the College since the most recent SA election in March 2023. This includes campus protests over the events in the Middle East and AI in the classroom becoming a more relevant issue, all while our community prepares for the inevitable tension that the 2024 U.S. presidential election will bring. Changing times means students have different priorities for their elected representatives. The best way to capture those preferences is through a special election. 

One objection to the special election might be that the next general election is just under two months away, so voters could express their changing preferences in the spring election. This line of argument neglects the idea of the incumbency advantage. The two newly appointed senators will likely be re-elected in part because of their elevated platform. Indeed, last year, all SA incumbents were re-elected. A special election would level the playing field. 

Of course, we see the appointment process as a necessary exception to the democratic process for efficiency’s sake. Holding a special election is logistically challenging, which is especially true at our institution. The Independent Elections Commission is hosting six information sessions before the spring election on March 28. During the campaign, the commission will monitor candidate conduct, ensure candidates stay within the spending limit and tabulate votes, among other responsibilities. Student Leadership Development plays a role as well, by organizing a candidate fair. 

All of this is to demonstrate the heavy administrative work required for an SA election at our college. Still, consider that the recent appointment process means half of the sophomore class’s representation is unelected. It is essential to balance democracy with efficiency, and the recent actions are overly-weighted in the direction of efficiency. To make a special election more feasible, the election season could be shortened and the number of information sessions could be reduced. Those who serve on the IEC choose to do so voluntarily, and we should not hesitate to ask them to take on additional responsibilities when there is a clear need. 

In March, students will have the opportunity to place questions on the ballot for the student body to vote on. Special elections should be one of them. 


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