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Members of the Kansas University employee and faculty senates have grappled over the past several weeks with the issue of secret ballot voting as a way to protect themselves from reprisals over contentious votes. After challenges in both senates, secret voting survived.
A representative democracy would all but break down if citizens didn't know how their elected representatives voted. But in a body like the University Senate or Faculty Senate, which have no power to make rules on their own or significantly alter daily life for constituents, do the same principles apply? That question has been at the center of the debate.
Secret ballots have always been an option in university governance. Until recently, neither the University Senate nor Faculty Senate had a specific policy, so they deferred to Roberts Rules of Order, an 1876 text on parliamentary procedures used in deliberative bodies of all sorts. Roberts Rules allows for secret ballot voting by a simple majority approval when "it is believed that members may thereby be more likely to vote their true sentiments."
As a matter of tradition, the votes were used rarely at KU, and many didn't know secret votes were an option. During his time as University Senate president in 2012, Chris Crandall, a professor of social psychology, proposed measures that made it more difficult to vote in secret. Both the University and Faculty senates adopted the measures, which require that two-thirds of the senate approve a secret ballot.
This fall petitions surfaced that had been signed by faculty members who disapprove of secret voting. In both bodies, rules allowing for secret votes withstood the challenges. A vote to alter the language of the University Senate regulation failed in October, and a vote to ban secret voting outright in the Faculty Senate failed last week.
Crandall said he thinks the secret-ballot voting measures were necessary after a University Senate meeting in March 2012 was videotaped. That meeting involved a resolution concerning the employment contract of Albert Romkes, a KU engineering professor who appealed a decision to deny him tenure and later filed a lawsuit against the university. With the meeting being videotaped by Romkes' supporters, and with public tension over the issue, the Senate moved to vote on the resolution in secret.
Many "felt brutalized by being filmed" by Romkes' supporters and singled out in a Facebook page and advertisements in the Journal-World, Crandall said. And so for Crandall and others, the move to make clear rules on secret ballots was an effort to shield faculty members from the sharp public glare surrounding heated issues, as well as a safeguard to protect employees and faculty from retribution if they vote for something opposed by their bosses, administrators or officials in state government. "We can imagine that under certain circumstances that private ballots are a good idea," Crandall said. "We introduced a high standard, but said it's possible."
Although a minority in the University and Faculty senates, there are those who disagree with secret ballots even in high-risk situations. Mike Williams, an associate professor of journalism, voted to rid the Faculty Senate of secret ballot voting "for the simple reason that I don't believe a representative body should vote in secret," he said. Those who oppose secret voting entirely, including Williams, have also said members can always abstain from voting if they are concerned about negative consequences.
Though university representatives don't get paid to serve and can't make policy without administrative approval, some still think that even the downsides of representation are part of the job. Voting in the open, even at personal and professional risk, is "part of the agreement you make when you run for office," Williams said.