Widgets Magazine


No Free Lunch: A Motion to Express Support for a Non-Binding Referendum

You have to love bureaucracy. Last week ASSU President Angelina Cardona proposed that the upcoming campus elections include what will essentially be a poll on the student body’s opinion of the ROTC debate. The “essentially” in that statement hides a lot.

To do what CNN and Gallup do every day, but on a smaller scale, Cardona has to wade through loads of administrative detritus. She had to author it, then send it to be approved by a majority of both the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate School Council, just to get it on the ballot. Which all makes perfect sense procedurally for any measure that carries force, but not for something that is essentially what Congress refers to as a non-binding resolution. At least in Congress, these are useless. Some notably insignificant examples: a 2007 resolution demanded withdrawal from Iraq, another established National Pi Day and a third, a personal favorite, articulated support for granting refugee status to Haitian survivors of a 2008 hurricane. It didn’t actually make it legal for these refugees to enter the country, or provide any resources for them, but at least we know that Congress supports the idea…in principle.

Furthermore, we’re not convinced that the non-binding referendum (opinion poll) would even be an accurate sample of the student body. Last year 5,804 votes were cast in the ASSU election across an undergraduate and graduate population of 20,838 — a 28-percent turnout. Freshmen and sophomores were vastly overrepresented, together accounting for 63 percent of the undergraduate vote and 39 percent of the total vote. All in all, not quite a representative sample.

More important, however, is whether this kind of issue should ever be subject to public opinion. From what we’ve heard of the debate so far, it seems that those opposed to ROTC regaining access to campus see it as an issue of rights, holding that while the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was enough of a liberalization to warrant debate, the military’s policy regarding transgender individuals is still discriminatory, which should bar its return to campus. Simply put, they hold that the equality rights of transgender people on Stanford campus would be infringed by the return of ROTC.

The pro-ROTC camp has not used the language of rights as persistently or as effectively, but its claims can be framed in the perspective of rights just as legitimately. Very simply this group is asking for the right to pursue a path of service in the United States Armed Services as part of its Stanford experience.

Temporarily put aside whether these rights claims are legitimate and subsequently which violation would be more significant: if we accept that this is an issue of conflicting rights, we arrive at some interesting conclusions.

First: both groups are dealing with their on-campus rights. Students can already be a part of ROTC at other campuses — a recent article in The Daily highlighted several who are — and the United States Armed Services bars service by transgender individuals. The outcome of our debate about ROTC’s return to campus won’t change either of these facts, so let’s drop the inflated sense of grandeur and look at just the effects on students on campus.

Second: both groups whose rights might be violated depending on ROTC’s fate on campus are small minorities. So any voting on the issue — binding or otherwise — is ostensibly the majority voting on the rights of the minority. This should raise flags if you remember the last civics course you took. One of the most basic tenants of the American democratic system is that the majority has no place in determining minority rights. When there is a conflict between different groups’ rights, it is the role of a non-biased arbiter, or in our case the Faculty Senate, to decide who has the more legitimate claim.

This question really doesn’t affect most of us beyond whatever impact ROTC would have on the campus community as a whole — a question about Stanford’s relationship to the ideals, values and culture of the Armed Services, that is another issue altogether. It has an undoubtedly huge impact, however, on those who view the military’s policy as invalidating their identity and right to equality and those who are denied financial support for their education and the right to begin a lifetime of service to their country while at Stanford. The rest of us have little at stake comparatively. So, instead of putting the question to a campus-wide opinion poll to which only 29 percent of the student body will respond, or drowning out any productive discussion with protest and petitions, let’s have a reasonable and civil debate about the future of ROTC on our campus. Ultimately, we’re not the ones who will — or should — have the final say.

Those wishing to express formal or informal auxiliary comments in support or opposition of the above motion should post electronic mail to zhoberg@stanford.edu or daveg4@stanford.edu.

  • Voting

    I think the only reason they wanted to put this on the ballot isn’t to really help make a decision, but it’s the best large-scale way to get a lot of opinions. Freshman and sophomores make up only 13% more than their share of half the undergraduate vote, and in this case makes sense, since they’re more likely to be affected by ROTC than the other 37% of the vote, who will probably be gone by the time ROTC comes back to campus, IF it comes back to campus.

    It’s really just the best poll we can come up with to gauge student opinion. But even then, it’s self-selective, so the results might be meaningless.

  • Point of Order

    Point of order in ¶3, subsentence 2. Stanford had 18,498 students last year according to the Stanford Common Dataset, and had 15,319 students in Winter Quarter according to the registrar’s numbers that were used by the Elections Commission to calculate turnout and Special Fee success/failure. Could you cite the 20,838 number you used to calculate turnout?

    Seems to me that voter turnout was actually somewhere between 31% and 37%, on par both with California state voter turnout averages and with national voter turnout averages.

    Your point may still stand, but this is basic background research that you seem to have made up.

  • really?

    @Point of Order: this http://ucomm.stanford.edu/cds/2010.html has a 19.5K student body, so the numbers are different all over the place–my guess is a difference b/n fulltime and part time students on the Grad end of things. And really, who pulls a number like 20.838 out of nowhere?

    And if we’re comparing ourselves to CA’s state voter population (seriously, ive seen a confederate flag less than 30 minutes from campus), we have bigger problems than a couple % discrepancy in voting percentages made in a point of how unrepresentative a poll is.

  • Point of Order

    @”really?”: The page you linked is the enrollment statistics for 2010-2011, as it says in massive letters at the top of the page. The article was specifically about enrollment LAST year, i.e. 2009-2010. Even if “numbers are all over the place,” the numbers cited are the highest of any data that I’ve seen (in fact, by over 10%), are clearly wrong, and are probably inflated to try to make the situation sound more dire than it is.

    Further, I fail to see why polling the student body directly on the ballot is an unrepresentative poll; it is probably *the* best possible way to poll anyone about anything. That is why we use them as a way of making democratic reforms. In this situation, it is doubly appropriate to use a non-binding referendum for the student body; not only does it get the best possible pulse on campus opinion, but the ultimate decision about ROTC is still vested in a year-long, incredibly thoughtful process that weighs the interests of the institution over the opinions of the small and ridiculously loud special interest groups we currently hear from.

  • really?

    your probably right on the numbers, but a couple of things–

    still dont think it was malicious–can you really see the writers going “well, 31% doesn’t really sound scary enough, lets bump it down to 28 percent, that’ll really get the student body going!”

    And if you read broadly (instead of carefully, nitpicky, etc) you’ll see that the article isn’t about the enrollment statistics of the 2009/2010 year but instead about the broader issue of rights. The point really isnt that the poll is necessarily biased, although it seems likely that it it, the point is that the poll shouldnt matter.