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Vote no on the petition referendum

| Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Welcome to election day, Notre Dame! I want to highlight something different about today’s ballot. Two weeks ago, the Student Senate approved a referendum to gauge the student body’s opinion on raising the required signatures for a petition to be referred to the Senate. The Committee on the Constitution envisions raising the required number from 200 (approximately 3% of the student body) to anywhere between 442 to 707 signatures (about 5-8% of the student body).

Now, the passage of the referendum doesn’t guarantee the change will be implemented. Still, it’s important for students to express their opinion. With that said, I’d like to advocate an enthusiastic “NO!” to the student body. There are a variety of reasons to reject the referendum. Others have admirably expressed concerns on how the proposed change limits student voices, especially those of minority groups, and other problems with the referendum. To avoid reiteration and promote nuance, I have a few other issues to specifically analyze.

First, petitions aren’t really a problem. Some argue that petitions waste the Senate’s time and draw attention from other issues. However, petitions are not normally used by the student body. Now, we’ve seen three petitions presented to the Student Senate this academic year. That’s because we’re still undergoing the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that go along with it. Every petition this year is related to the pandemic. This year is an anomaly, and we shouldn’t worry about a sudden spike in petitions being created. Raising the number of signatures is an overreaction to our situation. Also, petitions already have to be approved by SAO. This ensures petitions are well-researched and relevant to the student body. 

Second, raising the required signatures only amplifies the difficulties imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions. We’ve already seen the struggle to acquire signatures in the student body presidential campaign. In the same meeting senators held to discuss raising the number of signatures on petitions, they expressed sympathies to campaigns struggling to reach the 700 signatures necessary to qualify as candidates.

In fact, the Judicial Council had to provide extensions to some campaigns! The referendum proposes a similar count of roughly 700 signatures. It’s reasonable to say that future petitions will struggle to reach the required number of signatures due to COVID-19 restrictions, just as these campaigns did. It makes no sense to subject students seeking to be heard to these unnecessary, draconian measures while already navigating the pandemic.

Third, proponents of the referendum have an inadequate view on the role of hall senators. They argue that students crafting petitions should instead seek out their representative in the Senate, which would promote better engagement between senators and constituents. Such a view fails to consider who hall senators actually represent. Yes, hall senators are expected to represent the views of their constituents. It’s an admirable and important aspect of dorm life and student government at Notre Dame.

At the same time, however, student issues go beyond the walls of a dorm. Sometimes a senator’s constituents will feel strongly about an issue to the dismay of a minority opposed to that position. Is the minority supposed to accept the fact they will not be represented, even if their view is shared by a significant number of students across campus and outside their dorm? Of course not! Petitions operate as a mechanism for important views not represented by a student’s dorm members to still be heard. But proponents of the referendum, who heavily emphasize the role of hall senators, would preclude this opportunity. 

This problem is the result of how the Student Senate is structured. The 200-signature requirement is low enough to ensure that voices not adequately represented in dorm life can still be heard. Many dorms have roughly the same number. Why are we holding the student body to a higher standard when we already recognize 200 as a sufficient number for representation? Most issues intersect with a variety of groups and constituencies on campus that no single senator represents. In many cases, these groups are already underrepresented in their halls, and thus will not always be heard. Petitions are the means by which these groups can convene and bring important issues to the attention of the Senate. 

Fourth, the uniqueness of Notre Dame’s structuring of the Student Senate makes comparisons to other universities inapplicable. Proponents of the referendum cite our peer institutions as having a requirement of 5-10% of the student body signing a petition for it to be valid. However, these other universities elect their senators through wider demographics than the relatively limited number of students in a dorm, whether it is by the entire student body, school, class year, or other methods.

Duke University, Indiana University, Baylor University, Washington University and the University of Chicago utilize senators who represent a constituency far larger than any dorm at Notre Dame. Their signature requirements are higher because their representatives already include a wide variety of constituencies. We, on the other hand, primarily utilize dorms to determine representation, which inherently limits the groups and interests represented by a particular senator. Suggesting we should adopt something because other universities, who use different methods of representation, ignores the uniqueness of our own structure. It’s comparing apples to oranges.

Raising the required signatures serves only to disengage students from student government while stifling their voices. This is quite ironic when student government operates to amplify student voices. 

Vote no.

Blake Ziegler is a sophomore at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He loves anything politics, especially things he doesn’t agree with. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

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

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