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By: Chukky Ibe
The Student Representative Assembly is too small. Decisions made by a small sample of people are likely to be skewed because of the outlier effect, meaning that if there is one biased member of the sample — in this case the SRA — it can directly affect the outcome of an election. If 35 people are selected to reflect the opinion of the student body, one outlier, one person who votes for their partner or friend, does not read platforms or decides not to listen to debates, will directly affect the outcomes of any election. Simple behavioural psychology reveals that it is easier to trust people you know. It is easier to believe people you have relationships with, and it is much harder to identify you have a bias toward them. Our current VP Finance was elected by a difference of one vote, which highlights some vulnerability in our system.
The 35 SRA members represent 21,000 McMaster undergrads. A scientific sample of the general population of Mac undergrads requires 10 percent or 2,100 people to claim scientific validity. The current system asks for 35 people or 0.0017 percent of the population. The system is deeply, methodologically flawed. Any decision that comes out of it cannot claim to be a valid representation of the student population. I concede that an election is not a scientific experiment, but it is not revolutionary to ask for a system based on mathematic principles, one which does not solely hinge on the altruism of strangers who are elected to represent people they will never meet.
The representative powers of the SRA are not absolute. We know this because the SRA does not vote for the MSU President and incoming SRA members. We recognise there are limits to representative democracy. This is why the MSU constitution defines the General Assembly, a direct democratic forum, as its highest space of governance. Students vote for the MSU president and the SRA officials, and this does not make the SRA less representative. It defers representative elections to the highest governing student body — the students. This deference reduces the outlier effect as it broadens the sample size. Any numbers larger than the 35 SRA members we currently have further reduces the outlier effect and the margin of error. A larger sample would mean that SRA members still get to vote, but it also opens voting to part-time managers, service volunteers, faculty representatives, welcome week reps, and club members. As an assembly member, I must empower my constituents to vote and not make excuses why they should not.
The next conversation to have is one of the logistics. If this is the greatest challenge, then we must support our elections committee as they find collaborative solutions. Timelines can be adjusted to optimize our combined democratic model. VP elections can be moved to the end of March, and we can adopt a debate model with time limits as recommended by the VP reform committee. This draws from the strengths of the representative and direct elections to optimize our democracy. This means successful candidates will have extra weeks of transition with their predecessors, and the SRA has fewer meetings during the exam periods. A class talk schedule that rotates according to faculty, so you do not have all candidates going to one class at the same time, and no one has an undue advantage. Candidates can also table-share to maximise traffic flow in the student centre.
The ideas I present in this short article are not solely mine but are a synthesis of conversations I had with 23 students who are not involved in student politics. More than anything, while talking to them, I was reminded that the people we serve will make rational decisions when they have the information they need. They must be treated with dignity and respect. By increasing the number of people who vote, we reduce the mathematical errors present in our current VP electoral system.
Photo Credit: Eliza Pope