On the legitimacy of the new SGA Constitution

I only write this because I believe in disclosure, not because I wish to incite conflict within the Student Government Association (SGA) or at Stevens. And it pains me to write this, mainly because it questions something in which I fully believed.

At the end of last semester, the SGA passed a resolution to completely revamp our constitution. Because our constitution required us to have student body approval before any modifications could be made to it, we opened the polls during the winter break so that students could declare whether they believed ‘the new constitution’ should be passed. SGA, of course, hoped to see it pass, and we messaged as many people as we could, urging them to vote.

We were confident that we would receive enough “yes” votes, so we didn’t campaign for people to vote “yes.” We, instead, asked people to just vote. We feared that out of all reasons we couldn’t pass the constitution, it would be not receiving enough total votes cast.

The ‘total votes cast’ requirement ensures that the SGA doesn’t pass a constitution with little to no engagement from the student body. It requires that “at least one-third of the Student Body casts votes,” which set our target vote count to 1041 votes. If we would have received one less vote than the 1041 minimum vote requirement — even if one-hundred percent of those ballots cast were “yes” votes — the constitution would not have passed. It’s a strict requirement that demands we engage with the student body if we wish to pass any large-scale reform. It’s a requirement which, I believe, is necessary and essential.

When the voting period closed for the new SGA Constitution, we were so excited to see that it had received enough total ballots cast. I was given the same vote tally that the entire student body received in a mass email. We were told that we received 1061 total ballots, 869 of which were “yes” votes. We had barely met the 1041 minimum vote requirement.

And yet, throughout all of us, one thing confused me. When the voting period was open and someone could have cast a ballot, we had included more than the standard “yes” or “no” options. We also included an “abstain” option.

Based on my knowledge of parliamentary procedure and my experience from serving on the SGA Senate for my entire time at Stevens, “abstain” means that a person formally removes themselves from the vote and that they will not tally into the total vote. The phrase “voting to abstain” is an oxymoron, because abstaining isn’t a way to vote — it’s a way to decline to vote.

For example, if it takes an affirmative majority of “yes” votes on a ten-person board for a motion to pass — four people vote “yes,” three people vote “no,” and three people abstain — then the motion passes. In this example, the three abstentions do not count toward the total tally because those people declined to vote. That motion received only seven votes, so based on those seven votes received, four votes as “yes” would constitute an affirmative majority.

After a few days of skepticism, I asked another SGA Official how many people had formally abstained their vote for the new SGA Constitution. Up to this point, I had not known of any other number besides the number of total “yes” votes and the total ballots cast. By asking this question, I wanted to ensure that we treated abstentions as they should be treated: not as votes, but as formal refusals to vote.  When I was given the complete tally, I was told that 869 people voted yes, 107 people voted no, and 85 people abstained their vote.

All those numbers together equal 1061, but the numbers that actually matter — the “yes” or “no” votes — add up to 976, which should not have met the minimum vote requirement for the SGA Constitution to pass. It seems like we characterized an abstention as a vote, which I believe is inappropriate and incorrect.

I fear that by counting the abstentions in the total tally, we improperly stretched the definition of a vote to fulfill our minimum vote requirement. And by including the “abstain” option during the voting period, we misled the student body. Some of you may have assumed that your abstention would have actually abstained you from the vote (as the “abstain” option would imply), and I would hate if your voice was misrepresented.

Because we added a deceptive vote option and rushed the vote through the winter academic break, some students may suggest that the vote was conducted with impropriety. I can only provide that the SGA’s hope with the new constitution was to create a better system to benefit the students at our institution and that we expected the voting process to be fair, straightforward, and procedurally correct.

What should happen next is unclear. We may need to rescind the new constitution, conduct another vote, or we may disregard this issue altogether; my guess is that we’ll go ahead and keep the new constitution. And for full disclosure, I really want this new constitution to remain adopted, but it would be improper for us to keep this constitution if it passed illegitimately. I can only hope now that we find a solution that serves the best interests of the student body, all while maintaining our integrity and our respect for our governing documents.

About the Author

Matthew Cunningham
Student, athlete, writer, political nerd, and patriarchy smasher