Four Yale alumni may have competed for the presidency of the United States in 2004, but according to early “buzz,” only one Yale student will be competing for the presidency of the Yale College Council in 2007. That student, Zach Marks, represents the second example in recent months of a Yale-centric race with only one apparent candidate; this February, Rachel Plattus won the Democratic endorsement in this fall’s Ward 1 aldermanic elections after no other candidate filed to seek it in a primary.
In Plattus’ case, she and others affiliated with her campaign seemed to be the only ones upset at her lack of opposition. While the Ward 1 Democratic Committee called her an “ideal candidate,” her press secretary insisted it was “too bad” that no one else had joined the race to provide an occasion for dialogue on important issues.
The fact that Plattus was unopposed takes nothing away from her campaign. Unopposed candidates can, in fact, be more responsive to those they represent than those who must engage the electorate to win votes.
In order to understand this, it is necessary to see elections as a two-part process. The first part, in which candidates decide whether to seek office, can be seen as politics from the “inside”; the second, the formal campaign and election, is politics from the “outside.” The typical objection to uncontested elections pertains to the second part of the process, but the first part is often responsible for an absence of competition. This is especially true in contexts such as YCC elections, in which most prospective candidates are already involved with the organization.
When these “insiders” are the only serious contenders, a well-qualified and well-respected candidate can easily clear the field. Insiders are likely to share a vision of the position, informed by their shared experiences and similar perspective. When someone appears whose skills match that vision, his erstwhile opponents may conclude that he is the best man for the job and decline to run themselves.
Of course, politics is about more than selection, but about election as well. It is the dialogue among different conceptions of the “job” itself that drives campaigns through the second part of the process, and having candidates on hand to embody those conceptions and advocate for them in direct debate can give voters a vocabulary to discuss the issues at hand, as well as a choice in the ballot box.
Whether that final choice is important enough to render competition necessary is a separate question, and one that rests on different models of the democratic process. One simplified model sees elections as a “market” wherein candidates compete for the support of different groups, with voters making decisions to favor the candidates who will best protect their own interests and liberties. In the other, the collaborative participation of citizens is more important, because “citizenship and freedom are inextricably linked” (in the words of political scientist Milton Regan).
The Ward 1 aldermanic election has provoked questions about whether the seat must be held by a current undergraduate so that students can be properly “represented.” However, this frames the issue in terms of student participation in government, not a perceived aldermanic duty to protect student interests. The YCC is similar: While some organizations do endorse particular candidates, there are rarely competing agendas to favor particular segments of the population. (This would make for more divisive student government, to be sure, but the presence of special-interest groups would be quite entertaining. Saybrook 12-PAC, anyone?)
Instead, students often vote for candidates they know or have seen. I voted for Larry Wise in the runoff election for YCC president last year because he knocked on the door of my common room, going door-to-door so students could see him as a real and immediate person. This is only possible in a small community, but no less valuable: When students can interact with candidates, they are included in the political process in a more meaningful sense. If anything, it is easier in an unopposed race, as candidates are responsible for soliciting the opinions of all students and students can engage with candidates without rancor.
This doesn’t take anything away from a choice in the ballot box, but the process doesn’t start — or end — there. It’s easy to vote for one candidate over another and leave the polls convinced that one has done one’s duty as a citizen, but true participation extends far beyond that. It’s less important that the race include a certain number of participants than that those participants serve as honest and responsive representatives of those whose votes they seek.
Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.