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Lack of information about referendum causes voter confusion

October 5, 2016

A referendum was voted on last week, thus passing an amendment that would turn the current student government system into a “Student Government Association.” 172 people voted, 147 in favor, and very few seemed to actually understand what they were voting on.

The referendum asked students, “Do you support amending the Student Association Constitution to allow for a student government association at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls?” A quick Google search for ‘student government association’ turns up nothing that helps a person understand the implications of the amendment. If a voter were to then look at the Student Senate website on FalconSync, they would find, under “Governing Documents,” a collection of agendas and minutes through which they might sift for answers. However, Sam Murphy, a senior majoring in business administration and former chief justice of the Student Judiciary, feels that many people simply voted “yes” without taking the time to do the research.

“I think part of it is, people don’t want to think to themselves, ‘I have no idea what this is.’ They want to vote somehow, and if it’s on the ballot, somebody must have thought it was a good idea,” Murphy said.

Simply put, the latest set of amendments will rearrange the structure of the current student government. As it stood before, the president and the Executive Board held a lot of power. The Executive Board was appointed by the president (not elected by students), and the president had the authority to tell them what to do.

“What we did is we implemented checks and balances,” said Christopher Morgan, current president of the Student Senate. “We now have a government that is representative of a government on a state level or a federal level.” The Student Senate will have more voting authority, and because the senate is elected directly by students, this means that student votes will have a more direct impact on the decisions being made.

In addition to this reform, the current Student Judiciary will be remade into a “Committee on Rules and Oversight,” which will perform the same functions of organizing elections and ensuring that the rest of the student government adheres to the rules. However, the chair/director of this committee (who is elected by his or her peers on the committee) will receive a scholarship for his or her work, essentially making it a paid position.

The wording of the ballot question did not convey any of these implications, and according to the Student Judiciary bylaws, “The question should correctly indicate the outcome that will directly follow from the passage of the referendum…[and] should not have the potential to confuse or mislead.” The Elections Commission (which is a part of the Student Judiciary and in charge of organizing elections) met on Sept. 29 to discuss whether or not to keep the results of the referendum.

The commission largely agreed that the question alone was not enough to give voters a good idea of what the vote implied. “I even read through it and was confused,” said Peter Vermeland, former Director of Academic Affairs for Student Senate, “and I was on student government last year.”

Ultimately, however, the commission voted 6:1 to keep the question and the results of the vote as they were. Voters, they decided, had the ability to do the research themselves.

“When there’s a proposal and all the minutes are public and everything is there for the voting population to investigate on their own,” said Roderick Babilius, the current Director of Academic Affairs, “Even at a state level, it’s up to the voters to know what they’re voting on.”

The minutes and agendas were indeed available to the public. However, whether or not voters thought to look there and whether or not the minutes and agendas could convey the implications of the vote was another matter entirely. Nathan Grosse is a third-year French major minoring in sustainability, and he said that, although he voted, he largely learned about the subject by word of mouth.

“Most of the information that I had was just kind of anecdotal,” Grosse said. “[But] sometimes even having a copy of what the amendment is, if you don’t know what that actually implies, that’s not always helpful. Sure, this is what it says, but how does it affect me, our campus? I think that’s the most important information.”

Grosse said that he believes a public statement of some sort detailing the implications of a referendum would be the best way to create an informed voting population, something that lays out what is being proposed and what it will look like in practice. He also said that an uninformed vote can be worse than no vote at all.

“I’m a firm believer that if you choose not to vote on something then you shouldn’t really complain about it much,” said Grosse. “But also, if you voice your opinion and you don’t know what you’re really voting about, you can kinda screw yourself over.”