The voting period for the Undergraduate Council presidential and vice presidential elections opens this Thursday at noon. We’re running for UC President and Vice President to bring direct democracy to the College through civic tech.
Direct democracy is neither new nor extinct. Swiss cantons, or districts, incorporate many aspects of direct democracy at more local levels, dating to pre-sovereignty political traditions. Ancient Athens was governed by direct democracy for centuries. Citizens of the Crow Tribe regularly vote on binding referendums by majority rule.
All these communities have something in common: a relatively small electorate — just like Harvard. Representative democracy was originally justified on elitist and practical grounds. Its outsize role on the UC leads to ineffectiveness and is not consistent with the College’s core values of inclusion, equity, or fairness.
The ancients believed only certain people were fit to lead — an antiquated idea we vehemently oppose but that incumbents love to flaunt. We believe every student is qualified to serve on the UC or as its president — what qualifications could you possibly need to serve on the UC? But it is true that representatives are needed at a certain point because it’s impractical to bring so many people together to make important decisions.
Technology solves the practicality problem. In 2016, a group of politicians and activists in Taiwan, going by the name “g0v,” were struggling with some of the same problems we’re seeing at the College today. A Guardian article on the subject summarizes their viewpoint well. “As g0v saw it, the problem of politics was essentially one of information. Elections were too infrequent to give lawmakers much of an idea of what the public wanted.” Infrequent UC elections — essentially popularity contests that highly favor incumbents — make it hard for our representatives to know what students want. Similarly, when “Abolish UC” presidential and VP candidates rake in the most first-choice votes, dissatisfaction with UC dysfunction is obvious. But how to fix it?
The gov movement’s solution to its analogous situation was the site Pol.is. Participants log on and “tweet” out comments to summarize their views, or just to make their point heard. Comments then circulate to participants who can swipe to agree or disagree with comments. As the poll continues, broadly held consensus views emerge. Rather than polarizing users, the app brings them together around common interest. When it’s been used in Taiwan, it’s led to decisive government action 80 percent of the time. On campus, a similar site would have other advantages. It is easy to join — you don’t have to download anything, and most people would just scroll and swipe.
We believe the answer to the UC problem is not abolition, but reformation. Pol.is can work at the College in conjunction with our representative system. Someone must be there to do the UC’s core functions. Yes, the grant and funding processes are controversial and opaque. The UC archives have not been updated since summer 2020. But institutions are hard to build, and we are better off transforming what we have.
The threat of “mob rule” in direct democracy exists, but we can mitigate it. If safeguards exist to protect minority rights, the tyranny of the majority that James Madison feared can be avoided.
As it stands, our representative democracy has resulted in tyranny of the minority and flat-out ineffectiveness. For example, 89 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun buyers, but our system fails to match the public’s desires. In September, 96 percent of students voted in favor of the “save shopping week” referendum. When the administration instituted a spring 2022 Course Preview Period, the UC did little besides, of course, issuing a statement and allocating $3,000 to a new “advocacy” fund (essentially leaving all real action to someone else). As if students could have given the Council a more clear mandate.
Pol.is can function as an organizing tool to power leaderless movements, which could be highly effective on our small campus. Anyone could suggest an idea, people could vote on it, discuss it, suggest modifications, and build momentum on campus around the best plan. For example, we could use Pol.is to coordinate students enrolling in eight classes at the start of the spring semester to sabotage the registrar in protest. Pol.is would facilitate widespread engagement and give weight to ideas and the commitment of classmates. The resulting action would be much more meaningful than the virtue-signaling statements the UC adores.
Tools like Pol.is are changing what’s possible for democracies. We shouldn’t shy away from experiments: It was just 80 years ago that the world boasted fewer than 10 democracies. We are positive that the College is capable of more cooperation and better governance than the dreary state of the UC suggests.
We are running for the Undergraduate Council to bring student voices together to answer important policy questions. We think students have the right to self-determination beyond choosing representatives whose operations are hard to track down. All students should have power, not only those who pretend themselves to be Harvard’s senators or members of Congress.
Kanishka J. Reddy ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor running for UC President, lives in Adams House. Cameron M. Hamby ’23 is a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator running for UC Vice President in Cabot House.