Approval vs. Preferential voting

Remember the AschColla debates about alumni governance and the Board of Trustees? Mr. Colla ‘66 finally responds in The Valley News to Mr. Asch ‘79’s last letter. In it, Mr. Colla ’66 challenges the approval voting system for electing trustees (in which voters vote for candidates they think are acceptable), and asserts that preferential voting, where you rank your candidates, should be applied in its stead.

One crucial point that Mr. Colla ’66 misses about approval voting is that voters not only vote for all candidates that they approve of, but they also indicate which candidates they do not approve of, and thus do not want on their Board. That said, Trustee Smith, who won the election with 55% of the vote, received the least percentage of disapproval votes among the rest of the candidates: 45%, while the other three slated candidates of the Alumni Council received disapproval votes of greater than 45%.

VALLEY NEWS – 7/22/2007

Letter to the Editor By Stanley Colla ’66

Clarify Dartmouth Elections

To the Editor:

Joseph Asch (Forum, June 29) is correct that Stephen Smith received
“approval” from a majority of voters in the last alumni trustee election
(just as T.J. Rodgers did in 2004). Under current rules, candidates can
also win such an election with only a plurality of voters, as Peter
Robinson and Todd Zywicki did in 2005.

Recent trustee elections have divided the Dartmouth community. Asch and
others have described the situation as “insiders” versus “outsiders.” The
“outsiders,” declaring themselves independent of influence from the current
administration, have an agenda: either change the direction of Dartmouth
College as they see it or change the leadership. Stephen Smith claims to be
independent of this “outsider” ideology, but he has backers who think
otherwise. When T.J. Rodgers was seated on the board, he said that he was
elected to represent the views of those who voted for him.

Our current voting method exacerbates this divisiveness in two ways. First,
the current election structure requires the Alumni Council to nominate
multiple candidates for an open seat. There is no such requirement for
petition candidates. It is unlikely that you will ever see more than one
petitioner for an open trustee seat because having only one candidate
channels dissident votes toward that individual.

Second, under the approval method, voters may vote for every candidate whom
they think is acceptable. However, in the last election, we do not know how
many of Smith’s “approvers” also voted for other candidates. Further, under
the approval system, a voter does not indicate any “preference” for one or
more candidates over others by ranking them. Thus, we do not know how many
voters who voted for Smith and another candidate actually preferred Smith.

A simple example will explain why these two things matter. Let‚s say that
two-thirds of Smith’s “approvers” voted only for him, but that the
remaining one-third voted for him and another candidate. If one-half of
that latter group actually preferred the other candidate, then Smith’s
margin of support has been undermined by nearly 17 percent. While the
splitting of votes may have been irrelevant in the last election, it is not
so clear how Smith would have fared had he been in a contest against only
one other candidate.

The point is not about preventing petitioners from being elected to the
Board of Trustees. Instead, it is about gaining clarity on alumni
preferences. If we truly want to know the will of the alumni, we should
move to preferential voting in all trustee elections and enable
head-to-head contests when petitioners challenge Alumni Council candidates.
Let the candidates declare their issues and stake out their positions; then
remove as much uncertainty from the results as possible by allowing the
alumni to tell us whom they prefer. Past evidence suggests that given the
opportunity to choose between two candidates, more alumni will participate.
I trust that greater clarity and more participation are outcomes that both
sides would champion.

Stanley Colla

Dartmouth Class of 1966