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Critiquing the Notre Dame student election

Gary Caruso | Thursday, February 26, 2004

I do not personally know Charlie Ebersol, but from what I read in The Observer, it seems that many coordinated opposition to his bid for student body president despite his extensive experience. His opponents claim that he drives a gas guzzling, environment-choking Hummer and may even torture small animals in the back seat. In essence, they suggest that Ebersol lacks the testosterone to become student body president.

In the rough and tumble unreal world of academia, election campaigns can become far worse an experience than any national effort. I should know. Thirty-three years ago I ran for student body president, losing to a guy dressed in a Burger King crown with his kitten as his running mate. My campaign offered many sound, sensible and realistic solutions to the campus problems of parking, dining, bookstore prices and social life. But students saw no relevance in our sitting student body president who, in exchange for a letter of recommendation to Yale law school, ignored a turnout of nearly 2,000 students and caved to the administration’s proposed ban of beer kegs on campus.

Why should a contemporary campus electorate, like Americans in 2000, vote for the most experienced candidate when the issues of the day do not seem as pressing as they might some day become? Nobody really cares about what may lurk beyond the horizon. All of us vote our immediate interests. Many of us vote our greed and fears.

It is ironic that the 2004 Notre Dame student election in many ways mirrors the 2000 presidential race, replete with similar voting trends, an uncertain outcome and Elliott Poindexter playing the vote keeper role of Katherine Harris. Unfortunately, Ebersol must endure a loss in part because of an archaic runoff election system and in part as a hostage of his own public persona.

While Ebersol swept nearly all of the women’s dormitories, he nearly lost all of the men’s dormitories. His strengths were women, freshmen and sophomores. Obviously such liberal elitist characteristics as sensitivity and idealism alone could not carry Ebersol to victory. He lost the vote of off-campus students like Gore lost the Christian coalition. Upperclassmen in 2004 rejected Ebersol like the angry, gun-toting NASCAR Bubba voters who could not relate to Gore’s 2000 effort.

Gore’s losses in Tennessee and West Virginia equated to Ebersol’s loss of campus men. The male voting block yearned for an important reason to better identify with Ebersol. He could have better related by going duck hunting like Dick Cheney or at least publicly quoting Digger’s basketball record when leading at half-time.

Ebersol’s campaign on the final ballot further parallels 2000 in that he faced his own version of Ralph Nader as a third option. What student government academic imbecile included an option to abstain on the run-off ballot? Maybe the initial ballot should include an area for “none of the above,” but never on a final ballot when only two tickets have qualified and successfully advanced. That ballot flaw is like allowing Howard Dean to appear again in November.

I personally oppose any form of runoff in our public election system, opting for one ballot listing all opponents where the winner takes all. This applies to party primary elections where a party nominee is selected as well as in the general election where all party nominees and independents compete. However, for campus elections, I might be persuaded to accept some form of a primary style effort other than a runoff format.

Runoff systems are post-Civil War concoctions, originally established to prevent a substantial block of minority voters, in some cases the largest segment of the voting electorate, from electing one of their own. Since alone minorities rarely can muster more than 50 percent of the electorate, bigots rigged the electoral system so that “like-minded folk” could gang up against such minority efforts when they qualified for a runoff. Regrettably, the runoff system still exists today, primarily in regions of this nation where the electorate pronounces all six syllables in the word “school.”

Despite the drama of this year’s student election, Ebersol’s legacy on campus will not be completely written until next school year, when Americans vote for a new president. Like many students who ganged up against Ebersol in favor of Istvan in the runoff election, Democrats will ignore Nader to defeat Bush this November. Only then will Ebersol’s legacy be written. He will have been the campus version of both Al Gore in 2000 and George Bush in 2004.

Legacies have a way of changing over time. As alumni, we who endured the betrayal of our student body president defeated him twice on the national alumni ballot. Funny how politics brings out the worst in everyone.

Gary Caruso, class of 1973, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.