The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Senators promote transparency, fail to record votes

Senators promote transparency, fail to record votes

(SPENCER EGGERS/The Daily Campus)

Editor’s Note: The following is Part 2a in our “Hidden on the Hilltop: SMU’s Culture of Secrecy” series, which examines the secretive nature of various operations at SMU.

For the rest of the series: Part 1, Part 2b, Part 3, Part 4

SMU Student Senators debated a bill at their December 1 meeting that would allow a senator to submit legislation without attaching his or her name to it.

Senators were divided on the issue.

“I am against this because every student has the right to know what pieces are written and by whom,” engineering senator Joseph Esau said during the debate. “They all have the right to a transparent government.”

Jack Benage, former membership committee chair, had a different opinion. He supported the bill and urged senators not to evaluate the bill based on transparency.

“Sure the student would not know who authored the piece, but they would know about the piece,” he said at the meeting.

The bill ultimately failed, 30-6.  It is not known which senators voted for or against this legislation because no one recorded their votes.

This is not an unusual situation. A Daily Campus investigation found that student senators rarely practice transparency by using a roll call to record their votes.

Based on available records for the past five years, senators have voted on 92 bills, but only used the roll call vote four times, or less than 5 percent. This means that SMU students would find it virtually impossible to judge a senator based on his or her voting record.

Senators routinely failed to record their votes even though most votes were split, meaning it was not unanimous. Split votes occurred on 70 bills, including all four roll call votes. Unanimous votes took place on just 22 pieces of legislation.

“I’m thinking they must have had more than four important votes since 2005,” graduate student Ava Damri said.

Senate bylaws call for the roll call vote to be used “in resolving the most important issues.” Some evidence suggests Student Senators interpret this as a way of ducking controversial issues while recording their votes on easy decisions.

On October 27, 2009, senators took a roll call vote on a bill regarding the donation of two mustangs to SMU by T. Boone Pickens and declaring Peruna the official mascot of SMU. Three senators voted against this bill: Cox senator Alex Linn, then-Lyle senator Will McCormack and Dedman II senator Seth Sloan.

But Senators didn’t use a roll call vote when deciding whether there should be a student referendum on the issue of a sexual identity seat. Instead, Senate voted down the proposal using a simple show of hands vote.

Then-speaker Alaa Al-Barghuti acknowledged adding representation for gay students was a controversial issue. But, Al-Barghuti added, she “didn’t want a senator to be viewed differently or harassed by either side” based on a recorded vote. 

The Speaker is in charge of deciding how Senate votes on any piece of legislation.

SMU students were incredulous to learn how seldom senators record their votes.

“I’m not sure about previous votes, but the fact that the Student Senate did not use roll call voting on the LGBT seat makes it appear that the senators did not want to be clearly identified as either for or against the seat,” Damri said.

None of the current members of the Student Senate interviewed for this story said they plan to introduce legislation to increase the number of recorded votes in the future.

“A lot of pieces aren’t controversial,” Speaker Will McCormack said. McCormack took over as Speaker in January.

“If it’s something controversial and I don’t want to be responsible for seeing everyone’s hands, then absolutely I’m going to do a roll call vote,” he said. “If I know it’s going to pass 90 plus percent, show of hands is something that I feel comfortable with knowing that they’re [senators] comfortable with it.”

McCormack defines bills as controversial when there are a large number of people coming to Senate because of the bill or when the bill affects a greater number of students. He noted that some bills don’t really affect students—instead they honor someone or affect the paperwork behind Senate.

Junior Miguel Esparza said Senate’s current voting practices make it easier to withhold information about their votes on major issues during election campaigns.

“It’s a bit worrisome,” Junior Miguel Esparza said about the lack of roll call votes. “You want to hold your senators accountable.”

Study Body Vice President Elect Austin Prentice was surprised at the number of roll call votes during past years. He has a different reason for why senators don’t use roll call votes: the process takes longer than a usual voice or show of hands vote.

“It’s just something that most people don’t want to go through the process [requesting roll call votes],” he said. “It’s because they don’t want to extend the length of Senate for that day because it takes a little more time. Voting takes place at the very end of Senate, so sometimes it’s been a long day—people just want to vote ‘ay/nay.’

Prentice said he hopes that no one’s vote would change because it’s a roll call vote, although he likes roll call votes because they make senators take a stand.

“But that’s why roll call is there because maybe some people either don’t say ‘ay’ or ‘nay’—They just don’t speak because there are so many other people who speak—but I hope that’s not the situation,” he said.

Student Senate Chief of Staff Alex Ehmke also cited a lack of voting among senators.

“There will be seven votes in a chamber that has 40 people in it because people aren’t paying attention, people aren’t taking their job seriously,” he said.

Student Body President Patrick Kobler said the decision to use roll call votes was “solely the discretion of the speaker.” 

“Personally, I think every vote should be recorded—especially if it’s a major vote,” Kobler said. “But I need to respect that this has been going on for 96 years. There’s probably some reason for it.”

Prentice says he would like to see roll call votes used more often, but not for every bill.

“Some bills come up and they’re very… they’re good bills, that everyone agrees with,” he said. “When you get good debates and when you go back and forth, I think the bill writer should ask for a roll call vote in that situation just so people can take their firm stand.”

Esau stressed that students should be more involved in Senate by going to meetings and speaking with their representatives. Esau said that students have to do their part as well as senators in order to have a working Student Senate.

“If you really want to talk about accountability, it’s really up to the student body to do something about it, but since I’ve never heard anyone complain about the minutes until now, it shows to me that the student body doesn’t care about Student Senate,” he said.

Ehmke said he was in favor of using roll call votes for all pieces of legislation.

“I think it’s important for everybody to take a decisive stand on every single issue, for elections so that people know how everyone stands and also just in general because I think it’s important for Senate to take itself seriously,” he said.

McCormack said he thinks the call for more roll call votes should come from senators if they want it.

“As far as the logistics of it, you know record every body votes, how they vote, their voting record, I think that’s something that should be put in a piece of legislation by a senator demanding that,” he said. 

McCormack does not have the ability to write legislation because he is Speaker. He said he could use his personal preferences in deciding how senators should vote, but that he doesn’t want to impose roll call votes on senators since Senate has not required them in the bylaws.

“I’d be happy to do it if somebody was passionate about making it a rule by putting it in the bylaws,” he said.

Junior Elizabeth Neel said the current voting procedures makes sense.

“Most students probably aren’t terribly interested in all their [Senate] work,” she said. “It’s nice to know about big issues, but the small everyday things aren’t so interesting.”

Senators took a roll call vote at the same Oct. 27, 2009, meeting on legislation that called for privacy hours in fraternity houses, which would mean there would be times where SMU PD couldn’t enter a house. There were nine senators recorded who were against the bill and six senators who abstained from voting.

Senators took a roll call vote in March 2008 when voting on whether SMU should have a campus pub. According to the meeting minutes, only then-Senator Marc Bullock voted against the measure. Then-Senators Michael Goodman and Ryan Pitts abstained.

But during Fall 2009, senators did not use a roll call vote on a bill that mandated the Office of the Dean of Student Life to create an internal affairs board or a resolution that would have added a Senate seat for a special needs senator.

In January 2008, senators did not use the roll call vote on legislation that encouraged the installation of medical amnesty and Good Samaritan policies. In April of that same semester, senators did not use a roll call vote on a bill that encouraged the administration to reconsider a Task Force recommendation that would have required more Friday classes.

In their capacity senators can pass legislation that encourages the University to take action on a particular subject, although this legislation is not binding. Senators also can pass legislation that changes the Senate Bylaws, Senate Rules of Order, Student Constitution and Student Code of Conduct. Senators are also charged with giving out between approximately $670,000 and $680,000 to student organizations and individuals from funds derived from student fees.

Lyle senator Joseph Esau said transparency was very important in Student Senate. Esau is the current chair of the Research and Recommendations committee, which is revising the four governing documents of Student Senate.

“If we don’t relay what we’re doing in chamber and what we’re doing outside Senate, there’s really no point of us having a Senate in the first place,” he said. “It’s very important that we get everyone involved as much as they can.”

Senate has set up a Web site and blog, where students can find their senator, as well as view legislation, meeting minutes and agendas. However, Esau said he doesn’t think enough of the student body is getting involved with Senate.

“I think that the general feeling when I talk to students is that they genuinely don’t care what’s going on in Senate,” he said. “It kind of upsets me a little bit. There’s a lot of great people in there doing a lot of hard work.”

Esparza agrees that many students don’t really care about Student Senate. Esparza himself does not follow Senate closely, although he said that as a minority student he’s more tuned in to Senate happenings.

But he said Senate should still be held accountable because they give away a lot of money.

“You want to know that the money is put to good use,” he said.

Prentice said he liked the idea that students could use voting records during the election process.

“I don’t want to make this a complete, like actual, Presidential interrogation sort of system,” he said, “but I think knowing a little more about what they’ve done in Senate that year and what they stood for would help the process, would help educate the voters to take a stance for one of the candidates.”

Ehmke is the author of the failed bill that would have allowed anonymous legislation. He said the bill was intended to show Senate inconsistencies in the governing documents about transparency.

“My first concern was that we needed consistency in the constitution,” he said. “So that meant either we had secret votes and secret legislation or no secrets at all. I was showing that it had to be one or the other, and by writing that legislation I was trying to show how stupid one of those avenues was.”

Although Ehmke introduced this legislation, he said having it pass and allowing anonymous legislation would have been “awful.” He then noted that even though he didn’t want it to pass, some senators voted for the bill.

Kobler said that he believes the Student Senate would record more votes if students asked it to.

“Transparency is a big part of us, but it’s also a two-way street. So if an individual organization feels that we’re not being transparent enough, let us know and we’ll work on that,” he said.

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