Refereeing Referendums

“The addition of the Dean of Student’s ability to establish standards in furtherance of principles embodied by the Honor Code and/or to comply with legal requirements and to modify the Student Conduct Process as appropriate to comply with applicable legal requirements and best practices.”

Sound familiar? Probably not, but it should.

Last Thursday, the administration presented the student body a referendum to approve a set of revisions to the Honor Code. The referendum passed with a decisive margin; 66.47 percent of respondents voted yes, 27.87 percent voted no and 5.66 percent abstained. The administration, I assume, has invested significant time and thought into the wording and implications of the revisions, and it is not within the scope of this article to critique the content of the referendum. However, it is valuable to discuss and evaluate the effectiveness as well as fairness of the presentation and administration of referendums by the College.

In order to deliver a valid decision on a referendum, the voters must, at the very least, read the text and ideally also understand its meaning and implications. The presentation of the revisions to the Honor Code was conducive to neither reading nor comprehension. Reviewing the revisions of Honor Code quoted in the first paragraph produces some daunting readability statistics; the passage scores an intimidating 5.1 on the Flesch Reading Ease test. The Flesh Reading Ease test is employed by a myriad of organizations: for example, the U.S. Department of Defense uses the test to check the readability of its documents and the state of Florida requires that life insurance policies have a minimum score of 45. The test assesses the comprehension difficulty of English texts by evaluating a formula that accounts for both word and sentence length. Lower marks indicate higher difficulty. For example, passages with scores of 90 or higher are readily understood, even by children, while scores of 30 or lower are difficult to read, even for graduate students. While the Harvard Law Journal’s average score of 35 indicates a high level of difficulty and this article’s score of 38 reveals that I am an excessively verbose and pretentious writer, the Honor Code revisions’ score of 5.1 can essentially be translated into “makes absolutely no sense.”

Besides the difficult syntax and diction, many of the terms in the revisions are ambiguous. What exactly are the “principles embodied by the honor code” and what constitutes “best practices?” Conscientious voters who do make the effort to read the text still have to deal with the lack of convenient resources to help clarify these ambiguities.

The purpose of referendums is to ensure that changes especially relevant and impactful to the student body are in line with the general opinion and sentiments of the students. Obviously, this cannot be accomplished if students fail to read or understand the text. Therefore, the College ought to consider some realistic improvements in the presentation and administration of referendums.

While few texts have a Flesch Reading ease score as low as the 5.1 of the Honor Code Revisions, end-user license agreements come close. End-user license agreements are notoriously lengthy — the average agreement contains over 7,000 words — and ubiquitous: every college student who has installed some software or another is familiar with the pesky blobs of text that accompany the final “agree” button. Curiously, more than half of users spend less than eight seconds on the license page, which corresponds to a reading speed of almost 1,000 words per second!

In response, some user license agreements require that users spend a minimum amount of time on the license page before proceeding. While users can always avoid reading the text by minimizing the page, such measures prevent users from blindly and automatically hitting “agree.” Similarly, the College should consider timing how long voters stay on the voting page. Voters who submit in too short a time that indicates an impossible reading speed, should be required to resubmit their votes. In regards to comprehension, it may be beneficial to provide some context and overview of the terms of the referendum in addition to the actual changes. In addition, to encourage discussion and clarification, the voting page should contain a comment section or link to a discussion forum.

If some voters do not read or fully understand the content of the referendum, on what basis do they make their decision? A study titled “First is Best,” coauthored by Dana R. Carney, assistant professor of management at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Mahzarin R. Banaji, professor of psychology at Harvard University, analyzed how order affects people’s preferences and choices when given a set of options. The study concluded, “Especially in circumstances under which decisions must be made quickly or without much deliberation, preferences are unconsciously and immediately guided to those options presented first.” While the conditions and cases analyzed in the study differ from the issue of voting, the conclusions are still applicable. For students who are not inclined to invest much time or effort into selecting their choice, the first choice may receive a boost of bias. When the first listed option happens to be “yes” — as was the case with the recent referendum — or “no,” the overall result may be skewed.

The simple solution is place neither “yes” nor “no” as the first option, but rather “abstain”. Placing “abstain” as the top choice not only mitigates this first-choice bias but also conveys that it is acceptable and encouraged, when the voter lacks a defined and informed opinion, to abstain.

Referendums, like referees, make the last call. However, just as referees are fallible and do end up making wrong calls (case in point: Packers-Seahawks), referendums, when improperly presented or administrated, may not reflect the actual overall opinion of the students. Nonetheless, while Packers fans still remain livid over last week’s game, to the students of the College, last week’s referendum is a distant, inconsequential and largely forgotten memory.