With the future of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council on the line, some opponents of a controversial referendum question that will determine the body’s fate made a high-stakes gamble: they told their supporters not to vote.
It may have just backfired.
Voting is set to close at noon on Thursday for a referendum asking students whether to replace the UC with a new student government. Seeking to suppress voter turnout below the required 40 percent threshold, opponents of the new student government initially encouraged students to boycott the referendum.
But with less than 24 hours left to vote, some have now reversed course.
UC President Michael Y. Cheng ’22 ran on a pledge to “abolish” and restructure the body he now leads. Earlier this month, Cheng unveiled a draft for a new student government called the “Harvard Undergraduate Association,” which is now on the ballot in the school-wide referendum.
Under the current UC constitution, a referendum requires two-fifths of students turn out to vote — with two-thirds voting in favor — to be binding. The rule is the product of a controversial constitutional amendment passed just days after Cheng was elected that upped the required number of “yes” votes from a simple majority to two-thirds and added a minimum turnout threshold.
Following the passage of the amendment, Cheng deemed the proposal an effort to “undermine the election results,” calling the new standard “an impossible threshold.”
Before voting on Cheng’s signature campaign promise went live on Monday, an anonymous Instagram account, @harvardknowyourvote, began calling on students to boycott the referendum to prevent it from reaching the necessary two-fifths turnout threshold.
In a since-deleted post, the account argued that boycotting would be more effective than voting “No.”
“Voting ‘No’ on the HUA referendum could help it pass,” it read. “Don’t let it.”
From the start, the audacious move came with a high risk: If proponents of the new constitution turn out enough students to surpass the threshold, the votes could be concentrated in favor of the HUA, with would-be “No” voters abstaining.
According to an email to the student body from the UC’s election commission on Wednesday morning, the referendum was 770 votes shy of reaching the 2,766-voter threshold.
On Wednesday afternoon, Cheng claimed in an email to the student body the referendum was just 368 votes shy of meeting the threshold. But according to UC Elections Chair Camryn D. Jones ’22, Cheng does not have access to voter turnout information, nor does any other UC member.
Cheng declined to elaborate on the source of his tally.
“I'm happy to talk about it after voting closes,” he wrote in a text message Wednesday night.
Regardless, Cheng’s data appeared to spook his opponents, who were backpedaling by early Thursday morning.
In an Instagram post just after 1 a.m. on Thursday, the anonymous anti-HUA account called on students to vote “no,” writing that it was the “best option.”
Separately, on Wednesday evening, one of the HUA’s highest-profile opponents, former UC President Noah A. Harris ’22, called for students to vote “no” on the question — not skip the vote.
“If you planned on boycotting the vote, I urge you to instead vote ‘No,’” he wrote in an email to undergraduates just after 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
The shrinking margin had Crimson Yard Representative Ethan C. Kelly ’25, an advocate of the boycott tactic, rethinking his approach.
“I'm honestly not sure about standing by the position. That’s something that I have been pondering tonight,” Kelly said around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The results of the referendum, which also includes a question about Harvard's Covid-19 policies, are expected to be released Thursday evening.
—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at email@example.com.