Early Wednesday morning, leaders of the undergraduate student government made a decision to deny hundreds of assembled community members basic information necessary in assessing their student government.
After almost nine hours of public comment and several additional hours of discussion about a resolution to divest in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Undergraduate Students Association Council decided to vote on the resolution with a secret ballot.
USAC’s decision takes extreme liberties with the democratic process. Closed ballots are the province of unions and secret societies – not governing bodies.
Student Wellness Commissioner Savannah Badalich suggested the secret ballot after expressing concern about councilmembers’ safety.
The job of an elected official is not easy – it requires great fortitude to list one’s convictions in a closely watched public forum week after week.
Still, certain principles should supersede personal concerns. The councilmembers who voted in favor of a secret ballot – Maryssa Hall, Sam Haws, Omar Arce, Lizzy Naameh, Jessica Trumble, Savannah Badalich and John Joanino – showed themselves lacking in understanding of the accountability and transparency required of any governing board.
Voting by secret ballot displays a lack of commitment to the principle of transparency. In fact, it demonstrates a calculated willingness to take actions that oppose that principle.
Elected officials are obliged to carry out their duties in full view of the public. The secret ballot is particularly problematic given that some members of council may be running for re-election and voters have no way to examine their full record.
Not to mention the secret vote was undermined by two preceding straw votes that gave students a clear impression of each councilmember’s stance. Both straw votes counted the same 5-7-0 result, with no indication that any official would flip-flop on the resolution.
When the question of whether or not the councilmembers were permitted to vote by secret ballot came up at this week’s meeting, Patty Zimmerman, student government services manager, pointed to “Robert’s Rules of Order” to justify the choice.
However, these rules are merely default guidelines for running meetings, and should not be used as a binding legal reference by USAC.
Those members of council who voted for a secret ballot must backpedal – quickly – by advocating for an open vote on divestment and amending the USAC bylaws, which are ambiguous on this point, to expressly forbid secret ballot.
In so doing, council could take one step toward regaining the student body’s trust, which it has eroded in a series of irresponsible decisions leading up to Wednesday’s vote.
In August, USAC displayed a lack of principle by raising the pay of sitting councilmembers.
In January, it demonstrated a lack of good sense and judgment by appointing an underqualified candidate to run student elections.
And on Tuesday, it demonstrated a lack of moral courage.
Each time, this editorial board believed USAC would see sense and move to correct its missteps. Too often, the council slips into silence, passing or putting off the buck.
For the hundreds of students who spent the night in Ackerman Grand Ballroom eager to make their voices heard and their concerns felt, a public account of their representatives’ votes should be an expectation.