September 10, 2019

SULLIVAN BAKER | The S.A.’s Secret Divestment Ballot Hurt Campus Democracy

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The Sun reported last semester that “for the first time in recent memory,” the Cornell Student Assembly had “approved a motion to vote by secret ballot” on Resolution 36, which “urged” Cornell to divest from companies “profiting from the occupation of Palestine.” Weeks of student lobbying led up to a high-stakes vote, which drew hundreds of Cornellians to Willard Straight Hall. These students hoped to see their elected representatives take a stand on an issue of great moral, political and historical importance. Instead, attendees watched as their representatives hid behind the secret ballot, an impermissible and anti-democratic political trick with a corrosive effect on student governance. As we start a new term, the Cornell community has to reckon with the consequences of the S.A.’s secrecy and prevent the elected body from doing further damage to campus democracy.

Most strikingly, the vote by secret ballot was an egregious violation of the bylaws that are supposed to bind the S.A. These bylaws state “secret ballot votes shall be reserved for executive sessions,” a type of closed-door session the S.A. did not enter during the divestment showdown. Though several members of the S.A. opposed a secret ballot, they lost out after a debate that included a ridiculous dispute about the meaning of the word “reserved.” By flouting the rules, the body demonstrated contempt for our system of governance and set a dangerous precedent. The S.A. showed future representatives that they can simply ignore the restrictions the campus community has placed on its elected leaders. If those who purport to speak for us continue to disregard checks on their authority, what’s to stop these restrictions from becoming meaningless?

Nor was there any sound rationale for the secret ballot maneuver. The ostensible reason for secrecy was S.A. member safety, but this justification doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. When advocating for a secret ballot, S.A. representatives said they had received outreach from a “D.C. think tank.” “Reporters” from this “national” organization, one representative said, had even “crosse[d] a line” by contacting members of his family for comment on the controversy surrounding Resolution 36. While it is troubling that representatives’ family members were dragged into the divestment dispute, service as an elected official often entails unwanted or unfavorable media attention. Attempting to avoid such attention by disregarding democratic rules runs contrary to the spirit of public service.

Pro-secrecy S.A. members also cited unspecified “threats to their personal safety,” admittedly a more serious concern than Beltway operatives looking for a sound bite. At this moment in history, when hate-fueled violence weighs heavily on the national psyche, it’s not hard to see why S.A. representatives would feel vulnerable in the face of threats. But if S.A. members legitimately believed taking a stance on divestment would expose them to physical harm, they could have simply abstained from the vote. Yes, abstention would have been an extreme form of capitulation to threat-makers, but it would have shown respect for democratic rules. It also would have been the safest option; no threatening force could accuse an abstaining member of voting the wrong way.

Since it is unlikely the secret vote truly safeguarded S.A. members’ safety, what did it accomplish? Well, it saved Cornell’s student politicians from difficult conversations with angry constituents. A representative who took any stand on Resolution 36 was bound to upset passionate activists on at least one side of the debate. The shady procedural move let the S.A.’s representatives save face by keeping the Cornell community in the dark about their actual political views. In concealing their votes, the members of the S.A. enabled themselves to exert political influence without jeopardizing politically convenient relationships or answering difficult questions about the ramifications of their votes.

The S.A.’s secret ballot robbed us all of a fundamental element of democratic citizenship: the ability to hold elected officials accountable. Votes are supposed to force politicians to make their stances public, and voters go to the polls to punish or reward them for those stances.  When voters lack the necessary information to make informed decisions, they’re unable to use this incentive system to affect their representatives’ choices, and democratic governance breaks down. This is precisely what happened here; the S.A. kept voters in the dark to render them powerless.

By putting secrecy over accountability, the S.A. undermined its already shaky credibility. In the presidential election that preceded the divestment vote by only a few days, protest candidate Trevor Davis ’21 received over 1,500 first-round votes, enough to put him in second place and earn him a seat, which he promptly resigned. Davis’ campaign was built on one central promise — to add something impressive-sounding to his resume — but he had no intention of ever fulfilling the responsibilities of the office he sought. His campaign was transparently farcical, but its success sent a clear message: Voters don’t take the S.A. seriously.

By hiding their votes with a maneuver that further weakened Cornellians’ faith in the S.A., the body showed a shocking disregard for its constituents. Such disregard makes S.A. members appear as Trevor Davis-style caricatures: self-interested careerists who flaunt the perceived status of elected office while shirking the duties that come with it.

This is dangerous. As more students come to view their elected representatives as prestige-focused politicos rather than committed public servants, it will become increasingly difficult for the S.A. to maintain a high level of engagement, which is critical to its work. The S.A.’s lack of significant formal power means that it must effect change through advocacy that requires diverse and broad coalitions of engaged Cornellians, without which the elected body’s efforts would be reduced to mere vanity projects —  if they haven’t been already.

We have to demand better. Anyone we elect (or re-elect) to the S.A. this year should pledge to obey the bylaws and forcefully oppose secret ballots on matters of public concern. If a representative fails to make or uphold such a pledge, we must vote that person out of office. The integrity of our student governance depends on it.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at jds526@cornell.edu. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.