In response to Billy Joe (who just called me Mr. Rohrscheib for the first time in his life) and the rest of his cadre of revolutionaries, I submit that some of the provisions in question should be removed from the Engagement Amendment. In fact, I wanted to remove them from the amendment at this evenings Student Senate meeting. I will explain and defend my position on each point, and then conclude by discussing what options I believe we have for moving forward.
As a point of clarification, when Billy cut and pasted text into his post, the underlining and strike through edits were removed. Each provision is explained here to avoid further confusion. you can also check out www.iss.uiuc.edu/amendment
Article V, Section 1, E
This is currently: “All referenda will be binding on the Student Senate. The Student Senate will not abridge the rights of referenda.” The amended version would read: “The Student Senate will not abridge the rights of referenda.
For a referendum question to be binding upon the Student Senate, 15% of the student body votes on that question and there is at least a 10% margin of victory.” There are typically two positions on this provision, either 1) that ISS should never take a position on a question that is decided by a student referenda, or 2) that ISS is elected to speak for students and should not be bound by past referenda. This provision was an effort at a compromise, the theory being that ISS should be bound by a referenda voted on by a lot of students when they voted overwhelmingly one way or the other, and that perhaps we should not be bound if a referenda was either voted on by a small portion of the student body or that we should not be bound if the student body was closely divided on a question.
I think it is bad policy for the Constitution to bind the Senate from taking an action that Senators believe would be of interest to their constituents, the current language would bind ISS even to referenda that are several years old. The obvious rebuttal to that argument is that ISS can just put up a new referendum; if the provision reducing the burden on ISS to put up a referendum is included in the amendment then making past referenda results binding seems much more reasonable. If we amend the constitution in a way that requires ISS to get 2000 signatures to pose a new referendum question, I think we should remove the binding language altogether and trust the judgment of future senators treat referenda results with the appropriate deference.
Article III, part F:
This is a new section that would require referendum questions to be asked separate from student elections. This would obviously reduce voter turnout to some extent, I do not contest that point. Much of Billy’s objection to this provision relies on it being passed alongside the section discussed above. He seemed to believe that requiring a 15% voter turnout for referenda to be binding on the Senate would mean any referendum not voted on by 15% of the student body would be void. This is simply not true. Referenda questions are asked for typically three reasons. 1) Amending the structure of Student Government; 2) Imposing new student fees or renewing old student fees; and 3) gauging public opinion on a particular question. The amended provision on making a referenda binding on the Student Senate would not void any of these types of referenda, it would only effect whether ISS could also address the issue.
However, one section Billy didn’t mention could void one type of referendum question if the voter turnout is too low. One provision Billy didn’t discuss Under the proposed amendment, is Article V, Section 1, Part B(2) – under this provision creating a new student fee would require that 5% of the student body vote on the question for a fee to be assessed. This was included because in 1998 the student government fee of 1$ per semester was reinstated narrowly by a vote that only 1464 students voted on, but all 40,000 students had to pay the fee. It is my understanding that this referenda was poorly advertised by the student election commission, which was then controlled by student government, partially to help student government get the fee passed. We thought there should be some minimum amount of students that would have to vote to approve a fee for it to be assessed to the entire student body.
The main reason I wanted to amend the constitution initially is that currently it is way too hard for students to put a referendum question to the student body. The provision to separate referenda from elections was included because if we make it easier to ask referendum questions, there is an increased potential for students to ask referenda questions solely to influence the election of the Student Trustee. Any number of questions could be asked just to drive certain constituencies to the polls, but ultimately asking certain questions, such as the question about the chief, will give some candidates such an advantage in the election that other candidates simply will not have a fair chance to be elected. I think this undermines the election process and cheapens the power of referendum questions.
Billy’s argument that when voting on big issues, voters should be able to simultaneously elect a representative of their choice is unconvincing. Nothing about separating these questions prevents voters from being able to vote both for the candidate of their choice and then separately for a big issue in a referendum, all it does is remove any particular candidates from using referenda questions to get an unfair advantage over their opponents in what would otherwise be a fair electoral process.
If Billy’s objection to this portion is based only on concerns related to voter turnout, he should consider that in Fall of 1999 over 7,000 students voted in a referenda when no student election was on the ballot, and in Fall of 1997, again in a question separated from student elections, 4600 students voted. In Spring 2003 when there were student government elections on the same ballot, 6147 students voted. If the referendum questions are matters students are interested in, and the questions are publicized, I don’t think the decrease in turnout caused by separating referenda from student government elections will decrease the turnout enough to call the results into serious question.
The Amendment would add a new provision making Article V (on Referenda) and VI (on Amending the ISS Constitution) unamendable. This is an embarassingly stupid idea, I now deeply regret writing this into the constitution and I look forward to removing it as soon as possible. Our original thinking was that we wanted it to be easy to amend the constitution but difficult to amend it to strike the entire constitution and replace it with a new one. There are better ways to achieve this goal. I apologize for this shoddy, and yes, hasty draftsmanship.
I can't deny that we rushed through the Amendment. I assure you this wasn't part of any strategy to pass it and sneak anything by our members. The Amendment was send out over the ISS email list well in advance of the meeting and members were given a copy at the previous weeks meeting. The only reason it was pushed through at the end of the meeting is that I wanted to be able to start collecting signatures and I didn't think we could start petitioning until the refereda questions were passed by Senate. In the future I will make every effort to ensure that the discussion of any constitutional changes are brought up as the first item for action so we can discuss the issue while as many senators as possible are present for discussion.
Billy says we need half of the Senate to revisit the issue. I'm pretty sure revisiting an old question would require a 2/3 vote, either way, I'm confident getting that 2/3 vote will not be a problem. At the beginning of the next meeting I would like Ariel to appoint the new parlimentarian to make sure we get the process right.
One thing is perfectly clear, we absolutely should not take the question to the student body as it is currently drafted. There is the added complication that we have collected signatures already with the amendment included in the petition. I think the SEC is likely to let us make some minor changes, so long as we aren't changing anything that was in the explanation of the question. I should point out the provision seperating elections from referenda questions is in the explanation we have been circulating with the petitions.
It seems to me that currently we have the following options:
1) Pull the amendment entirely. This would mean revisiting it and voting it down. I'd rather not use this option because several elements of the amendment are good policy. This would not effect the other 3 referenda questions, but the SEC would not be able to ask the amendment question if it is not supported by 2/3 of ISS without 7% of student body signing a petition. We would turn in the 5% for the other 3 questions, and the SEC would then ask those, but not the engagement amendment because we wouldn't meet the 7% requirement.
2) Simply remove the language making the document unamendable by a 2/3 vote, and change Article V, Section 1, E to whatever the majority of ISS is comfortable with. Then we could ask the SEC to accept the changes because these arent included in the general explanation given to students.
3) Dan Nugent's suggestion of essentially doing #2 but also adding a provision to make it easier for us to amend the constitution more substantially in the spring when we have more time to have a convention and sort all the details out. Personally, I think this is the best policy decision, and I think it would be fun to write a new constitution together.
We will set aside time at the beginning of our next meeting to sort this out. Just a heads up, revisiting a past question does not require anything coming up for information. We will set aside time for it to come up, and if no one else does, I will make a motion to revisit the previous question, because it is absolutely imperative that at a minimum we remove the language making article V and VI unamendable. I appologize for all of the added confusion I've caused. We really should have had a more open dialogue throughout the drafting process and I will make sure we do a better job of this in the future.
I hope you all have an excellent Thanksgiving break.
P.S. Billy Joe, I'm still your huckleberry