Proponents of the new proposed alumni constitution at Dartmouth have offered two basic arguments for why the new system is thought to be more "fair" than the system it replaces. I've been looking around a bit at the history of how the current rules came to be, and the impact of the new rules. Sources are sketchy, so I've tried to piece the details together as much as possible. Long story short, these arguments do not hold water when set in an historical context.
There are two basic rules that matter to the current debate.
The first is the "no campaigning" rule that forbids trustee candidates from speaking publicly once they become qualified candidates, except through the approved mechanisms (a short bio and statement on the ballot, two emails, a video statement, and further questions and answers posted on a website). This rule was established as by-laws of the alumni balloting committee, which are subordinate to the alumni constitution. Peter Robinson, T.J. Rodgers, and I, have all expressed our view that we strongly favor eliminating the "no campaigning" rule. These restraints are increasingly silly in the modern age of communications and impossible to apply with any degree of workability. Adding to the cynicism of the ploy, the new constitutional apparently would repeal the no campaigning rule.
The second is the voting and balloting rules. Typically, the alumni nominating committee nominates three candidates and the election is conducted according to "approval voting" rules. In 2005, there were two open seats, so the nominating committee nominated four candidates for the two seats. Unlike the officially nominated candidates, petition candidates can gain access to the ballot by submitting the required number of signatures from 500 alumni. Under approval voting, voters can vote for as many candidates as they like and find acceptable.
The new constitution purports to address both of these issues, but does so in quite a peculiar manner. Consider each.
The No-Campaigning Rule: First, the constitution requires those thinking of running as petition candidates to pre-identify themselves to the nominating committee and then if they are not chosen, gives them 30 days to collect 250 signatures to gain access to the ballot. This is an entirely illogical process, for reasons detailed in many places, including the Wall Street Journal editorial just the other day. Nonetheless, it supposedly is justified because it is said to be necessary to cure the purported "unfairness" of petition candidates to be able to "pre-campaign" while seeking petition signatures, an opportunity denied to those nominated by the alumni nominating committee.
But, of course, this argument is competely and utterly specious. It is not necessary to enact a brand-new massively complex constitution to address this issue. It is necessary simply to eliminate the rule banning campaigning by candidates. This rule could be changed today by the balloting committee. And its abolition has been supported publicly by nearly everyone who has addressed it--including Peter, T.J., and myself, all of whom are supposedly unfairly benefited by it. So to suggest that a brand-new constitutional trustee nomination process is necessary to address the issue is blatantly misleading.
The history of the no-campaigning provision is also quite interesting and sheds light on the current debate. In 1980 a man named John Steel ran as a petition candidate for trustee and was elected in a landslide. Efforts were made by the College and the board at the time to refuse to seat him and after protracted litigation, he finally prevailed.
The next year, in response to Steel's election the alumni council adopted a new rule governing trustee elections--the "no campaigning" rule. The rule proved effective--until Rodgers's election in 2004, Steel was the only person who had actually succeeded in getting elected via the petition route.
The Voting and Ballot Rules: Second, the new constitution eliminates the requirement that the nominating committee nominate several candidates for each seat and have the winner elected by approval voting. It supposedly replaces that system with a system that will promote two-person "head-to-head" races. In reality, it does nothing of the sort. Under the proposed constitution, there could still be multiple petition candidates. All that the new constituion would do is greant unilateral discretion to the nominating committee to set fields of candidates. As the Wall Street Journal observed, this "would allow the nominating committee to shape its slate against external challengers and split votes. These rules, like those in a casino, would game the odds in any given election in favor of the house."
The history of how the multi-candidate requirement came to be established is again interesting. In 1989 a man named Wilcomb Washburn qualified for the trustee ballot as a petition candidate (I recall this vividly as it was the first trustee election that I was able to vote in as an alumnus). Washburn was soundly defeated in a two-person race against a sitting trustee running for reelection.
Although he lost, Washburn's effort was too close for comfort for some. In 1990, therefore, the alumni council again changed the rules to make the system more "fair". Instead of nominating one person, with the possibility of a head-to-head election if a petition candidate qualified, the nominating committee would field several candidates with the winner to be decided by approval voting.
Thus the irony: the system adopted in 1990 in response to Washburn's petition candidacy is now to be scrapped and replaced with a "new" system--which is precisely the system that was abandoned in 1990. Except that now the number of candidates is left to the discretion of the nominating committee, which, again, would be able to run "head-to-head" races if it thought that would give its own candidates an advantage, of multiple-candidate races if it thought doing so would be more advantageous. Why the proposed change? Because the current system is thought to unfairly favor petition candidates.
Conclusion: Remarkably, in both the situations of Steel and Washburn there was apparently latent unfairness in the election rules that didn't come to light until petition candidates either won or mounted serious challenges to the establishment. By coincidence, it now appears that the successful election of petition candidates in the last three trustee elections has similarly exposed unfairness in the system that no one had notice for over a decade.
History suggests some interesting lessons about the current round of "reform." First, the purported inequality on campaigning could be eliminated today simply by eliminating the election rule that forbids it that was adopted after the Steel election. Second, the new balloting and voting procedures simply reinstate the pre-1990 rules--which were adopted in response to Washburn effort.
A cynic might be tempted to conclude that in the eyes of the election rule-makers at Dartmouth, what counts as "fair" is more a reflection of whether the proposed rule changes will operate to the detriment of petition candidates.
The views expressed here are mine alone as an alumnus and do not necessarily represent the views of the board of trustees.