Harvard Reforms Overseer Elections

Moves to online voting—but raises threshold to petition for a place on the ballot.

Kenji Yoshino ’91, president of the Board of Overseers
Courtesy of NYU Law

Three months after the conclusion of an atypically contested campaign for election to the University’s Board of Overseers—with five petitioners seeking office on a “Free Harvard/Fair Harvard” slate that proposed eliminating undergraduate tuition and challenged the College’s admissions procedures—the board today unveiled four changes to its election policies and procedures. They will bring voting and petitioning into the twenty-first century, perhaps enhancing alumni engagement in governance—but they also change eligibility for the position somewhat and raise the signature threshold for aspiring petition candidates more than tenfold, potentially making challenge slates more difficult to assemble.

The Corporation ratified the Overseers’ reform proposals during its July meeting.

According to the announcement:

Online voting. Effective in the 2018-2019 academic year, voting for Overseers and elected directors of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) will move online—a subject of regular discussion during the past several years. Until then, the current system—mailing paper ballots in early April, asking degree-holders to record their choices by hand, and returning the completed ballots by mail by late May—will remain in place. Those who prefer paper ballots will likely be able to continue to receive them. (The joint online and paper system has long been in use at some peer institutions, including Yale, providing comfort to Harvard officials that the process is reliable and secure.)

This change may enhance participation. Among 265,000 currently eligible degree-holders, about 10 percent to 11 percent, typically, have bothered to cast their paper ballots in recent years. During the contested election this past academic year, characterized by vigorous social-media outreach to prospective voters, there were 35,870 ballots cast: 13.5 percent.

The change may also be empowering for international alumni, for whom the logistics of mailing a ballot back to the United States may be cumbersome and expensive. Given the global spread of degree-holders, and increasing frequency of Overseer candidates from their ranks, this seems an appealing benefit of online balloting.

In a statement accompanying the announcement, Kenji Yoshino ’91, president of the Board of Overseers this year, said, “We’re pleased to move to online voting, which alumni around the world have asked us to adopt. We will make this change as soon as we can put a secure and reliable system in place.” (Yoshino is Chief Justice Earl Warren professor of constitutional law at New York University School of Law.)

Overseer eligibility. According to the announcement, “With very rare exceptions in recent decades, candidates for Overseer have held degrees from Harvard. Looking forward, the boards determined that all [emphasis added] Overseer candidates should hold Harvard degrees.” It is worth noting that physicist Stephen Hsu, a professor and vice president at Michigan State, a petition candidate last spring, would be ineligible under the new rules; he was a Junior Fellow at Harvard, but is not a degree-holder. (After several years of vigorous student protests on campus over divesting Harvard endowment investments in fossil-fuel companies, it is also worth noting that a student is not yet a degree-holder, and therefore could not petition for election.)

“Our contributions as Overseers take root in our longstanding experiences with the University and the commitment we feel to its progress and best interests,” said Nicole Parent Haughey ’93, vice chair of the Overseers executive committee, in the University announcement. “We felt it important to affirm that Overseers should be drawn from the extraordinary ranks of the hundreds of thousands of people who hold Harvard degrees.”

Petition logistics. Beginning this academic year, “aspiring petition candidates will have a more convenient way to gather support” for the Overseers’ ballot: eligible voters will be able to generate a petition form online, and then sign and submit it by e-mailing a scanned version or posting the completed document by regular mail. This is a less cumbersome procedure than the one that prevailed previously (including during the past year): obtaining from Harvard the official nomination forms printed on watermarked paper; gathering physical signatures from eligible voters, who may well be dispersed geographically; and returning the signed forms to the University for validation. The process will not permit an online click to constitute a “signature” on a petition; the returned scan or document will be required.

A higher petition threshold. Offsetting the ease of gathering signatures electronically, Harvard will now require petitioners for a place on the Overseers’ ballot to secure support from 1 percent of eligible voters (2,650, given the current cohort of degree-holders, and presumably increasing with each successive year’s graduates)—up from the current requirement of just more than 200 eligible voters.

“The increase was adopted,” according to the University announcement, “in view of such factors as the magnitude of alumni support considered appropriate to qualify for the ballot; the fact that in recent years the number of required signatures…has been barely more than what was required a century ago, when there were around 20,000 alumni eligible to vote; the trustee selection practices of peer institutions…; and the introduction of a petition form that will be available online.” Not all peer institutions allow petition candidates for their governing boards; among those that do, Yale, for instance, requires signatures from 3 percent of eligible voters (in balloting for alumni fellows of its Corporation; membership on the Harvard Corporation, unlike the Board of Overseers, is not subject to alumni balloting).

In a sense, this higher threshold might be seen as a vetting process somewhat equivalent to that applied in selecting the HAA-chosen slate of eight Overseer candidates (for five open positions) each year. Numerically, of course, the new requirement for petitioning for a place on the Overseers’ ballot means obtaining signatures from nearly 10 percent of the eligible degree-holders who have typically been interested enough in the proceedings to bother to vote in recent years. Thus, the combined changes make it physically easier to collect signatures in support of a petitioner, but require collecting far more of them to qualify for future ballots.

Updated September 1, 2016, 12:55 p.m., with this new paragraph: In a brief telephone conversation after this morning’s news announcement, Ron Unz ’83, who organized the Free Harvard/Fair Harvard slate of Overseer petition candidates last winter, said, “These sorts of changes don’t totally surprise me.” When he was assembling his slate, Unz said, “People were surprised at the small number of signatures petition candidates needed to get on the ballot.” He said they were also surprised by the cumbersome physical process of gathering those signatures on Harvard’s watermarked paper forms—and he recalled catching a red-eye flight across the country from California to deliver a satchel full of signed petitions just before the deadline to file them. The “quasi-electronic” petition system, he said, “makes a lot more sense.” Given the easier mechanics of petitioning, he said, raising the number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot “does help to filter out what would possibly be a large number of petition candidates,” a sensible step. But the new threshold—2,650 eligible degree-holders now—is a “substantial figure” given the past voting cohort, and may well make it difficult, if not impossible, for future petitioners to qualify, he continued, even with the “relaxed” petitioning procedure. In this sense, he said, the slate he organized for the 2016 Overseer election “is the last of the traditional petition drives Harvard will ever see.”

Read the announcement here.

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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