Supporters of the referendum argue that peer pressure can unfairly sway the JCR votes, citing the results of the controversial BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement last term. However, opponents claim that enforcing anonymity could make voting procedures unaccountable and unrepresentative.
On Monday, a meeting was held to decide the terms of the referendum. Noting that “The current system of voting in JCR meetings is vulnerable to peer pressure”, the JCR also stated that “Anonymous voting is a fundamental principle of a democratic organisation”, with the caveat that “Any voting system should be as convenient as possible”.
A referendum, proposed by Andy Paine, second year physicist, and Hal Hainsworth, second year English student, will be held today to decide whether to go ahead with the scheme for a trial period of two meetings.
If the trial goes ahead, several methods of secret voting will be tried: a secret paper ballot, as well as system of JCR members looking at the floor whilst voting, with anyone looking up forfeiting their vote.
A system of online voting was also suggested. However, committee members rejected this, worried that it would lower already poor attendance at JCR meetings.
Questions were raised as to whether anonymous voting would be necessary for all meetings, with JCR members noting that only contentious issues really demanded it.
James Newton, JCR president, showed a balanced view of the issue, commenting, “On the one hand, [anonymous voting] is crucial for avoiding the dangers of peer pressure and intimidation. Only by anonymous voting can we get an accurate portrayal of what the JCR truly thinks.”
“On the other hand, it threatens to make Meetings confused and disjointed, pushing more people away from regular attendance. It’s a difficult question and that’s why we want to ask the JCR in this Referendum (which, at the end of the day, is only for a trial run).”
John Harkness, a third year PPEist, who has stood out as a firm opponent of the proposed changes, was recorded at the Monday meeting as saying, “This is catering for people who won’t stand up and defend their opinion. If they lack the conviction [to vote publicly] then that should mean their vote is worth less.”
In an email to the OxStu, John stated, “I believe firmly in the principle of an open forum for discussion, debate, and decision making[…] Anonymous voting is irreconcilably conflicted with this principle.”
“Anonymity does not benefit those whose vote might be swayed by peer pressure. It encourages double standards and hypocrisy. If people feel a certain way, they should be prepared to let their friends know. If they are not prepared to do so, then it seems to me that either their opinion is misplaced, or their choice of friends is misplaced.”
Andy Paine, speaking in support of his motion, commented, “This topic was brought up by a number of committee members who felt that to be truly democratic we should look into a possibility of having anonymous voting. There have been instances of very heated debates in recent times, for example the BDS Israel Movement debate where there was a distinct atmosphere in the room to lean one way.
“I think that there is a good amount of JCR support for the principle, the referendum being run this Thursday will allow us to (anonymously!) gather an insight as to whether the JCR would like to trial the scheme, as no constitutional changes have been put forward yet.”