On Sunday, as the clock inched towards midnight, Columbia College Student Council voted against putting a boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement referendum on the ballot. I believe the decision was the right one. Student council should not be putting initiatives that target and alienate specific identity groups on campus to a student vote. However, as a senior in Columbia College, I am ashamed of how my council failed to represent me that night for one simple reason: The vote on whether to have a referendum was conducted by secret ballot.
When we vote for student council members, we decide who best represents us. That becomes impossible if we don’t know how our representatives are voting. Part of representation is transparency: If your constituents have no idea how you vote on the most divisive, controversial issues, how are they supposed to decide whether you’re properly representing them? Secret ballots on issues such as this one make a mockery of the democratic process and send a “Forget you” message to CC students who care about how their council votes.
If we want CCSC to be chosen based on the candidates’ record of ideas and action, voting must always be public. Otherwise, student council elections become a popularity or name-recognition contest, and everyone in CC is denied the representation we deserve.
CCSC voted on the very same question—whether to put BDS to a referendum—two short years ago. In all likelihood, they will be forced to vote on it again and again until it passes by brute force. I used to feel safe, trusting that even if members of the council would feel comfortable privately voting to alienate the majority of Jewish students, they would not do so publicly. Now that CCSC has used a secret ballot, I can no longer feel safe. In the future, CCSC could vote to alienate a minority community—mine or another—and not be held accountable.
After all, Antisemitism thrives in anonymity. The person who defaced Teachers College with swastikas has not come forward, nor have the students recruiting on behalf of neo-Nazi group Dark Enlightenment. When we are forced to be accountable for our actions and words, we are kinder and more open. If we cannot force all students to be accountable for marginalizing others, we should at least begin with our elected governing body.
Some council members argued Sunday night that a secret ballot protects CCSC members. To them, I ask: If you fear the fallout from your constituents, why are you voting against their wishes?
Some representatives voiced concerns about their safety. However, council members are exposing themselves to only as much public fallout as the brave students of Aryeh, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, and Students Supporting Israel did when they voiced their stances publicly at the meeting. When someone runs for student council, they knowingly and voluntarily take on the significant responsibility of representing the CC student body. Why should CCSC be able to protect itself behind a secret vote while the student activist groups it represents are forced to go on the record to fight for the causes they believe in?
Last year, when it put the same BDS initiative to referendum, the Barnard Student Government Association demonstrated exactly what can go wrong when elected representatives vote in secret. A small executive council voted—secretly—that the BDS referendum would not be considered “contentious;” this allowed the referendum to go to the ballot without a two-thirds vote.
Regardless of your views on BDS, Sunday night’s three-plus-hour CCSC debate proves that the issue is contentious. However, because it happened in a closed session, we will never know what motivated those students on SGA, and we can never know who voted in such a blatantly irresponsible way.
Again: Antisemitism thrives in anonymity.
Two years ago, I sat in the Jed D. Satow Room and watched with pride as CCSC voted decisively against using a secret ballot. On Sunday, I was disappointed and scared as my friends and classmates did precisely the opposite. An important precedent for marginalized groups and minorities was overturned on Sunday, and with it my faith in CCSC as a representative body. I hope, going forward, that CCSC does not make the same mistake again.
The author is the former Director of Political Affairs for Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel and a senior at Columbia College majoring in philosophy and concentrating in Jewish studies.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.