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Staff editorial: SU should vote to remove incumbent tags

In the Student Union election process, candidates running for reelection to their current positions—incumbents—are labeled as such in the online voting system currently used. To encourage more engaged voting and a more equitable election process, we recommend that Student Union Senate vote to remove these incumbent tags in Oct. 24’s Senate and Treasury sessions before the upcoming election in November.

Of course, whether a candidate has experience in the job they’re trying to earn is valuable information that any voter should have. In the eyes of the editorial board, this information should simply be included in the candidate’s biography—each candidate is allowed to include a biography section, which includes their platform for election, proposed goals for their potential term and relevant personal information—instead of being prominently displayed next to a candidate’s name. Incumbent reelection rates are currently around 85 percent, and while this may reflect suitability for a given position, it’s hard to look past the impact the label has on a potential voter.

In a perfect world, voters would take the time to read biographies and understand the candidates’ positions and values—but in reality, many students remain uninformed voters: They don’t take time to read biographies and actually get to know the platforms of those running, but they notice which candidates are incumbents and use that status as a proxy for fitness for the job. This approach is understandable in the context of a Washington University student’s busy life—candidate’s biographies are typically on the longer side, and incumbent tags are more succinct—but should still be avoided as a shortcut. Lazy voting, done at a glance, unfairly favors incumbents—and removing the tags would remove this source of bias.

Not only does this incumbency advantage perpetuate uninformed voting, but it may dissuade new candidates from challenging incumbents. Potential contenders are likely to be aware of the disproportionate advantages their incumbent rivals enjoy in the voting process, and they may feel discouraged from ever running for office as a result. Removing the incumbent tags would level this playing field and embolden new candidates to run for office, while still allowing incumbents to advertise their relevant prior experience through their biographies.

Furthermore, if candidates—especially those running for the first time—wish for voters to fully engage in the voting process instead of breezing through the choices, they should carefully decide what information to include or exclude in their biographies, even if the incumbent tags are not removed. Oftentimes, biographies span several lengthy paragraphs and include material not necessarily relevant to the given position. Instead, offering a concise summary or list of points (including past experience in Student Union) could keep voters from deciding not to read things through due to concerns over the extensiveness of the process.

In addition to promoting a more equitable election system, Senate and Treasury voting to remove incumbent tags would increase the student body’s confidence in their commitment to transparency. The senators and Treasury representatives voting on this measure would be the same people benefitting from the maintenance of incumbent tags in upcoming elections (for as long as they’re still students). Therefore, voting to abolish them would increase these bodies’ accountability in the eyes of students—their potential voting base—and would demonstrate their commitment to benefiting the student body as a whole, rather than simply advancing their own personal interests.

This increased accountability also has the potential to raise the voter turnout rates in Student Union elections, a goal acknowledged by election commissioners in recent years. If students have more faith in their elected officials—and feel that their interests are represented through a transparent, fair process—they may feel more inclined to add their input through exercising their rights to vote.

We encourage students who are interested in the outcome of this vote to attend the upcoming Senate and Treasury sessions on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. in Simon Hall Room 113 and Simon 110, respectively. Active involvement from the general public should propel Senate and Treasury to act in the interests of their constituency. Also, please vote! Student Union elections are held in early November, offering a chance for students to let their voices be heard.

Voting to remove incumbent tags will clearly benefit Wash. U. students in electing their governmental representatives more thoughtfully—but it will also benefit the Student Union representatives themselves, restoring students’ confidence in a body that has been plagued by controversy.