The Case for Reforming NALSAR’S SBC Elections

Come July, it’s election time at NALSAR! SBC elections attract equal parts excitement and apathy. The student body has a good reason to grumble about its problems. Groups find their internal dynamics challenged and struggle to consolidate the diverging opinions within, while exclusive cliques realise that they are in the minority and find their prominence threatened. Otherwise marginalised or ignored batch-mates find themselves holding power and receiving attention. Candidates hold onto hope and NALSAR revels in the drama, entertainment and gossip. The apathetic have a good excuse for a holiday and remain unfazed by the commotion of elections. The first years, for all practical purposes, are on the outside looking in.

For the team at The Warbler, elections offer an excellent opportunity to discuss the problems with the election system and suggest reforms to remedy the flaws. In this article, we look into the elusive SBC Constitution, argue for better voting methods, highlight the subversive and unfair modes of campaigning and call for open campaigns and presidential debates.

The Curious Case of the SBC Constitution

2014 was a significant year for the NALSAR student body. A sense of change and a desire for empowerment culminated in the setting up of a review committee of the SBC Constitution and the heralding of a Draft Constitution.  In July, a divided student body debated, proposed amendments, made impassioned speeches and, as is customary for any large NALSAR gathering, banged desks. Enthused first years sat cluelessly through the proceedings, enjoying the heightened atmosphere of debate. As Anindita Mukherjee, a member of the review committee from the batch of 2015, succinctly put on her blog: “Parts of the debate were truly insulting, parts were saddening, but what it did do is throw open the question of representational equity for the entire student body to consider, publicly.” The Draft Constitution was used in the interim that year, with a few agreed upon changes.

The Constitution was not finalised by the time the 2015 elections were upon us. An open house, with moderate attendance, decided to continue the Transition Constitution and the incoming first year batch of 120 was given 2/3rd votes to equalise its share with the older 80-strong batches.

Two years since the Draft Constitution was introduced, the Transition Constitution continues to be in effect for this year’s elections as well. We are left wondering if and when the Constitution will ever be finalised in earnest.

A Flawed Voting System

The current voting method NALSAR follows is assumed to be the best because anyone can contest in the elections and the person who enjoys the greatest number of votes among her peers wins. While this method, known as the plurality voting system, is commonly used around the world, it doesn’t stack up against improved voting methods which are more reflective of the voters’ will. Though political scientists remain divided on what the best voting method may be, they are fairly unanimous in the conclusion that the present system is far from it.

Several alternatives to the traditional “one person, one vote” plurality voting system exist, giving  voters the ability to better represent their views at the ballot box. Approval and range voting methods are two such alternatives that have gained traction with institutions and organisations around the world.

Alternative Voting Methods

Approval voting is much like the traditional plurality voting method, with the only difference being that the voter can choose more than one candidate to vote for. Our voting preferences are rarely black and white. Approval voting recognises this and allows a voter to exercise her vote within the grey area.  While we may not agree entirely with any one candidate’s views on every issue, we often find more than one candidate agreeable. Approval voting gives us the space to express our multidimensional stand, freed from the binary of agreeing entirely with one candidate while disagreeing entirely with all the others.

For example, a group of 7 students is trying to decide where to go to dinner. There are three options:  Mama, A & O and Aadil. Each person is asked to pick one of the three options, even if they like more than one option equally or are indifferent towards the others. One student chooses Mama, four choose A & O and two choose Aadil. By traditional voting, the group would go to A & O. The problem is that three people strongly dislike A & O while many of those who voted for A & O also like Adil. Now consider if this group is simply asked to raise their hands for each eatery that they like. The result is that one chooses Mama, five choose A & O and six choose Aadil. The group would go to Aadil.

Instead of just asking each individual’s favourite, approval voting allows the group to find out which option the most number of people agree with, without having to go through multiple rounds of voting. Letting people vote for more than one option reduces conflict and increases consensus.

One of the advantages of approval voting is that it eliminates the “spoiler effect” – a phenomenon where a candidate who runs against someone with similar appeal may split her votes and cause her to lose, ultimately leading to the victory of a candidate who may be less favourable to the electorate. For example, if two friends want to run for a committee, one would probably be forced to step down because her participation could divide the vote of their mutual friends and ultimately, neither of them would secure the majority. Approval voting prevents the spoiler effect, allowing mutual friends to vote for both individuals.

Approval voting has other advantages. Firstly, it discourages negative campaigning, since it favours candidates with widespread support. Secondly, it can help reduce voter apathy. By giving the voter more choice, she is less likely to think that her vote will be wasted or inconsequential. Thirdly, it decreases the scope for strategic voting and makes it more difficult to game the election process. Fourthly, it can make the election process more meaningful and encourage more participation. Finally, approval voting is very simple to implement and requires no change in the current system.

Range voting is the method whereby each voter scores each candidate on a scale. If the group of students from our example were to use range voting to decide which eatery to go to, they would have to get out their pens and papers and score each eatery on a scale of 1 to 5. They would then calculate which eatery had the highest average score and go to that eatery. Range voting gives the voter even more control on the outcome by allowing her to express the extent of approval for each candidate. However, it requires a degree of sophistication in counting that may challenge its implementation.

Voting methods like instant runoff voting and the single transferrable vote are also popular among electoral reform organisations. However, given that approval voting is a simple and effective voting method which would prevent the spoiler effect and lead to the election of candidates whom the most number of people agree on, we endorse the use of approval voting for SBC elections.

We also propose the introduction of a ‘None of the Above Option’, as per the UGC notification issued in July, 2016.* Sometimes, SBC ballots are either left blank or have random names, phrases or plain gibberish written on them. While it may be easy to prima facie dismiss these sparse instances as acts of mischief, the truth is far from it. In reality, the voter is exercising is her right to express her choice to reject the running candidates. Unfortunately, without an option to express this right, voters are left to use other creative methods. To quote the Supreme Court,  “Democracy is about choice. This choice can be better expressed by giving the voters an opportunity to verbalise themselves unreservedly and by imposing least restrictions on their ability to make such a choice.”

While the voting method is the part of the election process everyone is privy to, much goes on in the shadows which can have a significant impact on the election results.

Behind Closed Doors

The election process has two levels. Each batch elects representatives for the various committees. These elected representatives go on to choose the members of the Executive (Vice President, General Secretary, etc.) and the conveners of the various committees from within the elected pool. While this may seem democratic, the truth is that most, if not all, of the crucial decisions for the  posts of the Executive and conveners are made behind closed doors in meetings between a handful of students from the higher batches (mostly men) on the basis of batch hierarchies, negotiations and favouritism. On the night before the elections, the candidates with the most probability of winning the elections are informed of these decisions and made to fall in line.

Having an approval voting method would make it more difficult to predict winners and manipulate elections. It would significantly inhibit the ability of a handful of students to make important decisions.

The Boys Hostel Hegemony

It is notable that the elections demonstrate a stark Boys Hostel/Girls Hostel divide. Given that most candidates standing in the elections are men, important decisions about the elections and the running of the SBC are made in the Boys Hostel.

The Girls Hostel does not have the same hierarchy-enforcement or inter batch solidarity that the Boys Hostel does. Election decisions of each batch in the Girls Hostel are largely independent of the views of the upper batches. In the Boys Hostel on the other hand, considerable influence is exerted by small number of students from the upper batches. This phenomenon is in part due to the strategic voting that takes place due to the single vote method. Approval voting greatly reduces the scope for such influence.

Though approval voting can help counter some problems that plague the SBC election system, it alone is not enough to address under the radar campaigning.

Covert and Unethical Campaigning

SBC elections involve little to no open campaigning. The administration believes that campaigning causes disruption and disturbance to the peace of the campus. Despite its intentions, the reality is that the lack of open campaigning encourages the opposite and covert campaigning becomes the norm. Gossip is the sine qua non of election season: candidates face smear campaigns and character assassination. In such an environment, manifestos do not determine elections, misinformation about candidates does. The cold hard truth is that elections can be won or lost based on lies. Candidates also dabble in identity-association and vote-bank politics. Often when a girl and a boy candidate contest for a committee, they seek votes based on their gender identity and not on meritorious grounds. People are made to feel obligated to vote based on gender identity. Though the entire student body does not participate in what is largely accepted as an ‘inevitable consequence’ of campaigning for elections, the bad blood changes dynamics within batches, often for the worse. Ad hominem attacks, usually false, biased or constructed, are rife. Rumours take a life of their own and there is no way to verify them. Harassment by batch-mates and calling in of favours make things worse. First years are the most susceptible to believing misinformation and this can have a significant effect on presidential election results.

Calling for Open Campaigns and Presidential Debates

Creating a space for candidates to campaign openly and engage with the NALSAR community, beyond the token manifesto sent to our inboxes, would help inform students about the different candidates and their positions on various important issues, reduce student apathy and increase participation. Manifestos cannot address all the concerns of the student body and rarely convey the long term vision or values of the candidates. An open forum for communicating campaign ideas beyond the pixels on our screens could counter the covert campaigning that has reigned supreme.

As it stands today, the election for president is a popularity contest. Students who may not have taken the time to cultivate the image of being approachable and friendly stand little chance in the election. With only one’s batch-mates voting for most posts, there is a certain degree of familiarity with each candidate. However, in the presidential election, this is not the case. Only a fifth year can become president and only one popular with juniors stands a chance at winning. Introducing presidential debates, where candidates can present their views to the student body, would allow little-known candidates a chance to connect with the NALSAR community. Arguably, qualities like oratory skills and charisma may give some an advantage in the debates and threaten to overshadow the quiet introvert with visionary ideas. We would counter that the student body has the good sense to tell the difference between showmanship and sincere dedication.

The platform offered by presidential debates would help even the playing field against those whose reputations might otherwise guarantee that they are elected. It is imperative that in these trying times, when a student protest can turn into a spectacle of a media trial, we know our leaders’ values and stands on important issues. Presidential debates would provide a means for students to ask questions and gauge the quality of each candidate.

In Conclusion

While NALSAR has made progress towards making the SBC more equitable, there is still much to be desired to ensure that the election process is truly open and fair. The introduction of approval voting and a NOTA option are small, simple and easy to implement changes which could positively transform the election process. Making campaigning more open and instituting presidential debates would help the student body make informed choices and give lesser known students a real shot. By engaging with the election system and critically evaluating the processes behind it that we often take for granted, the NALSAR community has the power to organise and work towards making the SBC elections more democratic and inclusive. Here’s to hoping for a better method of voting, fairer elections and a more engaged community.

Srujana Bej and Amani Ponnaganti (Batch of 2019)

 *EDIT: (6:29 PM, 20/07/16) Included information regarding the UGC notification after Dipankar Das of the batch of 2016 brought it to our attention. We appreciate reader input and would like to thank Dipankar.

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