Friday, April 16, 2021

Roll Call Votes on the UBC Senate

A motion came to UBC-V’s senate Wednesday, April 14th that would have made recording the vote of each senator for each motion a rule of senate. The advocates explained this as a response to concerns with the use of roll call votes this past year. They said that mandating roll calls will make senate more transparent and senators more responsive to their ‘constituencies.’  After a lengthy debate in which mainly student senators said making all votes roll call builds a better senate, and mostly faculty senators saying the status quo was fine, the motion was referred back to the agenda committee for further consideration and consultation.

[One note on senate's organizational structure. I note that many of the student senators discussed senate as though it were a representative government body in which each senator had a duty to a particular constituency.  My understanding of senate, as per the BC University's Act, is that senate is an academic governance body - not a legislative assembly. Perhaps this is hair splitting, but with the mix of appointed and elected senators, the division of categories of senators, it raises a question as to whether or not the notion of a representiare assembly is the correct way to regard senate.  But this is a minor aside to the core issue.]

With regard to the rule change I find it a bit perplexing as to what problem it is trying to fix. From what I have seen this past year roll call voting has been used as a particular tactic when there are motions that elicit strong emotions and arise out strong moral convictions and that a coordinated group of Senators want passed. In these cases, those arguing for the motion expected all of senate to agree with them. When dissent appears, a senator advocating the motion would then called for a roll call vote under the frame of ‘transparency,’ yet it appeared more like a tactic of enforced compliance in which they hoped it would ensure support would go their way; trusting that with the implied threat of having each vote recorded those thinking about voting against the motion would change their mind and vote for it it or be silent. The complaints against roll call being used as a policing tactic won't end when roll call is normalized, their inherent problems simply become engrained in the process.


The rule change appears to deal with concerns over the tactical use of roll cal voting by making all votes roll call, using the technical argument of ‘transparency’ as the rationale and ignoring the tactical deployment of the roll call vote that I have witnessed this past year several times.  This is a neutral change (in terms of ‘democratic’ process), except in so far as it might add time to meetings for counting and recording (though there are very likely technical fixes to bring to bear). What intrigues me about it is how it is a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist – at least one that this kind of rule change won’t fix - the use of social media shaming and attempting to imply disagreement is a kind of moral failure.


If there is a concern over transparency of decision making processes then I would think all meetings of senate (except those with reasonable grounds) would be open to the public, that agendas of committees would be publicly available in advance of committee meetings, that minutes would be available, and that we would get meeting materials with enough time to actually read them. But none of that currently happens. Try finding meeting minutes to committees and you will find a patchwork quilt of materials with gaps. You will spend a lot of time looking. Some committees don’t even have publicly discernible schedules. Try, as a member of the university public to attend a committee meeting and you will find yourself rebuffed on several fronts. 

Roll call votes have an interesting history in governance models. An important use of roll call vote would be  when the decision is split and it is hard to ascertain the vote outcome. While nothing in typical rules of order prohibit it from being used in a ‘policing’ manner, each time it has been used this past year has been in the context of emotionally charged debates where the advocates feel they hold the moral authority. The implications is one is racist if one challenges the particulars of an EDI motion or anti-student if the use of proctoring software is defended or extended withdrawal dates questioned. What this has led to, as we can see from some of the discussion Wednesday evening, is silencing of senators who would just rather not get mobbed online.

The current rule allows the assembly itself to decide when to do a roll call (or a secret ballot). The idea behind allowing the assembly to decide when to do a roll call or secret ballot is based on the premise that it is the assembly’s will, not a prearranged procedure, that should decide when to roll call or secret ballot.  There is no easy way to prevent the deployment of political shaming to enforce compliance to popular cultural values. The very idea of a roll call is to force individuals to put their name behind their actions. In contexts of heated debate and high emotions this can contribute to some to either abstain or vote with the outspoken advocates simply to avoid problems. If we wanted our academic governance body to act more representatively then we really should be enable secret balloting as the norm so that individuals can vote their conscience, not be cowed into going with an outspoken cohort that feels it has the moral upper hand. 

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