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Weak Ratification Vote Signals Trouble on the Horizon

On Saturday, February 23,the Honor Code was ratified by the student body for the first time since last spring.  This was the first time the Honor Code that emerged from the chaos of Special Plenary and everything that followed was put to a constitutional ratification process.  So how did it go? As a former Honor Council Librarian and expert in the history of the Code, who spent a year diving exploring questions like this, I would say the following: ratification this year went poorly, falling below expectations.  This year was a bad sign, but not so bad as to merit the immediate sounding of alarms.

The Results

As the above graphs shows, 66% of the school must vote on the issue of ratification in order for quorum to be reached.  I would hope and expect after a Code Crisis, like the one that took place last spring, we’d see a big leap in the percentage of the student body voting in the following year.  We did not bounce back as far as we expected to. Approximately 74% of the student body voted in total this year, closest to 2015 at 74.47%. 2015 voters had another three years of sliding down the trough before they met their next Code Crisis.  If the strength of a year’s ratification does foreshadow how long voters have to wait until their next Crisis, perhaps 2018 kicked our next one down the road a few years. While it may be comforting to consider that a few years will elapse before the next Crisis, I would have felt much more comfortable if we had had a year like 2014 in which turnout had bounced back from a Crisis much more robustly.

The picture of vote choice is slightly less positive than that of turnout.  The 2019 vote composition looks most like the 2017 composition, which I saw, as did the coordinator of elections at the time, as a harbinger of Code failure.  In my time as Librarian, I argued that ratification votes can be considered on two important axes, apathy and opposition. 2018 was characterized by a spike in both.  Few voted, and many of those who did voted “no”. As is clear in the above graph, 2018’s “No” vote is perhaps the most unusual thing about that round of ratification. There was unprecedented opposition to the Code. Luckily, we see little evidence of that opposition in this year’s ratification vote.  In 2018 “No” votes made up a full 25% of votes cast. This year it was only 4%, a fairly typical fraction of votes.

Why the Weak Ratification?

I can see a few possible explanations for this relatively weak ratification.  The first is lingering ill feeling from the challenging and sometimes traumatic chaos of last spring.  With Spring 2018’s drama and tension, perhaps people walked away from the Code Crisis with less faith in the system of the Code and less desire to engage and invest in it.  This is tough to measure, though preliminary Clearness Committee data may shed some light. Almost two thirds of respondents agreed to some extent that the Code Crisis “created a productive campus-wide discussion,” showing little evidence of ill feeling.  It should be noted, however that while they aren’t representative of the views of the entire student body, the short answer responses after the section on the Code Crisis speak to great frustration with the process and participants (such as President Benston, and Special Plenary Committee to name but a few).  These data will be fleshed out more in the interim Clearness report, which will be released in May and the full report, which will be released in September. But for now there’s still a question mark after the phenomenon of ‘hangover’ from last spring.

Continuing in our exploration of purported ill feeling, perhaps the sharp decrease in “No” votes actually suggests that students’ concerns were addressed at Special Plenary last year and they feel less opposition.  Perhaps opposition was greater than usual last year due to the #allstrugglesonecode protest the preceding fall and, in the absence of campus-wide activity, decreased to typical levels this year. Perhaps some students voted “No” last year and saw little impact, disincentivizing them from voting this year.  None of these phenomena are certain. I present them merely as explanations that could fit the observed results. In the end, there’s little evidence for lingering ill feeling toward the Code as an explanatory factor, but this always exists in varying degrees and could be playing a role.

Another possible explanation for this year’s weak ratification is lack of structural support for the process from our structures of student government (Honor Council and the Coordinator of Elections).  The ratification was run over an unusual timeline this year, as it was last year. Last year, the 48-hour ratification period opened at 6:00pm on the Thursday following Plenary and was open until Saturday evening.  This year, it opened two and a half hours later, at 8:30pm, leaving it open less of Thursday and more of Saturday. In 2016, ratification opened at 12:00 AM on the Thursday following Plenary, leaving the entire ratification period to run on Thursday and Friday, when students spend most time on their computers.  The 2016 timeline is the one most in line with constitutional mandate and most likely to reach potential voters.

Coupled with this unusual timing, Honor Council was hard pressed for human resources to contribute to Honor Code tabling this year.  The constitution demands that Council table for eight hours each day and leadership struggled to meet this threshold on its own. Ordinarily all Council members would be involved, but this year half of Council was elected only the day before ratification opened, posing an organizational challenge.  Despite this challenge, however, Honor Council pushed the envelope by expanding their tabling locations this year to include the Coop and Founders great hall in a laudable example of initiative. In the end, they got close enough to their mandate that I doubt much of this year’s weakness can be traced to this source, though I’m sure it wouldn’t have hurt to have more hands on deck.

The final structural factor is reminder emails.  This year the elections coordinator sent out three reminder emails over the course of the ratification period, though many of us didn’t see them.  Qualtrics allows administrators to send reminder emails only to those who have yet to take part in a survey, and it was this mechanism which was used to remind people to vote.  Anyone who voted early wouldn’t have seen these emails. Three reminder emails seem entirely suitable to me. Had these emails been absent perhaps it could have explained some of our weak vote, but their presence leaves me less and less sure structural factors explain much of this year’s concerning weakness.

The third possible explanation has to do with the nature of Code crises. Honor Council has record of the Code failing, precipitating a crisis, six times, in 1988, 1992, 2002, 2006, 2013, and 2018.  After each Code Crisis there is a period of four to ten years in which the Code is consistently ratified before the next Crisis. It’s difficult to make any statements about what qualities possessed by a Code Crisis predict the latency time until the next one because records and data are scarce before 2011.  Perhaps the length of that decay period is dependent on how the campus processes the Crisis, or the extent of changes made to the Code, or even the nature of speeches and the landscape of public comment during the Crisis, I just don’t know. Whatever factors about a crisis explain its following latency or decay period, this ratification vote could signal that the 2018 Code Crisis failed to kick hard enough to push the next one far down the road in its low turnout and low-support composition of vote choice.

The final possible explanation I see is the background of national events.  Some community members with whom I’ve spoken have suggested that the Honor Code is a focal point for frustrations, fears, and angers originating in other places.  In a way, this makes sense. The Honor Code is widely viewed as the foundation of our school and, perhaps on a subconscious level, our little part of the world. When the world seems out of control, when you see the wrong people rising to power, and you see people in your vicinity being rewarded for bad behavior, disenchantment with the foundation of all of that makes some sense.

On the other hand, there isn’t a lot of evidence for this explanatory model.  Voter turnout was fairly steady through 2017, the first ratification after the 2016 presidential election which was jarring, even traumatic, for many on campus.  2017 was indeed a bad year for ratification, with more “no” votes recorded than in any other successful year, but if the rise of Trumpism into public view were to blame for this weak ratification I would have expected to see more difference between 2016 and 2017 than we did.  The response to the Crisis can be considered as aligning with the “national events” theory, as much of Special Plenary Committee’s work focused on making campus more welcoming to and supportive of marginalized students. This is a very brief inspection of the impact of national events on our campus’s politics, a subject which bears much more deeper exploration, but I fail to go into it more deeply because I’m somewhat skeptical that this explains much of this year’s weakness.

As the above graphs show, it’s not typical for ratifications to get stronger year by year except in the case of a Code Crisis.  Generally, ratifications get weaker and weaker in terms of engagement and support for the Code each year until those factors slide below the waterline of ratification and wake the campus up. 2016 is the only exception to this trend in the last eight years, but it proves improvement is possible outside of the rebound from a Code Crisis.

In summary: this year’s ratification may not have been as strong as could have been expected for one of three possible reasons.

1.     Lingering bad feelings from last spring.  There’s mixed evidence on the existence of bad feelings and it’s tough to say whether they could have caused this year’s weak vote.

2.     Lack of structural support.  The altered timeline likely played a role, but as the other structural supports were fairly well in place I don’t see this as fully explanatory.

3.     The 2018 Code Crisis didn’t kick the can far down the road.  This one is just tough to know much about. Perhaps the next Code Crisis will come next year or perhaps it won’t come for another five or ten.  Perhaps this mechanism is related to the previous two explanations or perhaps its related to institutional memory and lack thereof. Either way, I don’t assign much explanatory power to this factor because it’s too nebulous.  It’s worth mentioning because it’s one of the underlying cyclical trends at the heart of our student government.

4.    National events.  This may have some effect, like all of these explanations it’s tough to know how much, but I doubt this explains much of this year’s weakness due to the mixed nature of the evidence.

In short, I can think of four possibilities that could explain this year’s weak ratification and none of them seem to explain the observed deficit in turnout and support, leaving grave doubt about what caused this year’s anemic result and what we should expect from years to come.

Looking Ahead

Now you might reasonably be asking “why does purported ‘weakness’ of a ratification matter?  We ratified the thing!” You would be right, in part. This was the first constitutional endorsement of the Code which had been written by SPC and the faculty and approved by the student body by Google form under threat of proctored finals and community meltdown last year, and that should be acknowledged.  This ratification was certainly significant. However, years like 2017 (and 2019 was a year like 2017) can be viewed as harbingers. 2017 went poorly enough that I quietly did some research into past Code Crises in preparation for the failure that did in fact materialize. My personal research in anticipation of the Crisis during my time serving as Librarian proved very useful, and it wouldn’t have been done but for sensitivity to harbingers in 2017’s ratification.  There is clearly something to this notion that ratifications get weaker year after year until a crisis is reached. In this light, 2019 could be seen as a harbinger of trouble on the horizon or as highlighting trouble present on campus now.

Ultimately, this piece ends with an ominous question mark, or at least a nervous ellipses.  After examining vote data, considering it in light of early Clearness data, and appealing to my own experience and research into the history of ratifications, I don’t know why this year’s ratification was so much weaker than expected, and it should be a concerning sign for all of us about what we can expect in years to come.  None of the explanations I can think of fit the facts enough to explain this phenomenon. This suggests there’s something going on on campus that I’m not seeing, a phenomenon or factor playing below the surface of the community which is acting on our politics. Perhaps there’s a deeper and lingering disenchantment with the Code that isn’t being measured, perhaps there’s some community disengagement going on (though I think there’s evidence to distrust conventional narratives about Haverfordian “disengagement”), or perhaps there really is something to the hangover from last year or the ineffectiveness of last year’s Crisis in content or processing.  The altered timing for ratification voting likely played a role as, perhaps, did the national political environment, but I don’t think either of these factors are sufficiently explanatory to account for the observed deficit.

Despite this concern, and this year is cause for concern, we do have a couple things going for us as a community.  The interim Clearness report will come out this May and the final report will come out in September, giving the school the clearest picture to date of where the campus is in every sense and against many measures.  We as a campus community are more aware of trends in student government and the Code, cyclical and otherwise, than we ever have been. We’ve got twice as many librarians as ever before thanks to Students’ Council.

It’s not clear why ratification was weak this year, but we shouldn’t panic.  It seems like there’s a phenomenon negatively impacting ratification, and we should all (student leaders especially) try and figure out what it is.  However, we also have some factors working for us in the coming year that should help in this investigation and empower us to re-engage with the Code and ratification.

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