Two students, Vendarryl Jenkins and Nathan Gonzalez, have recently proposed an amendment to the Honor Committee Constitution that would lower the qualified majority needed to ratify future amendments from 60 percent to 55 percent. On Feb. 7, they published an open letter that introduced this proposal to the student body. We want to be clear the editorial which follows does not take a stance on the substance of the amendment itself. Upon reading the letter, however, we felt that it was necessary to respond to certain claims the amendment’s sponsors make, some of which are premised on incomplete and inaccurate information.
First, the letter claims that “in 34 states, the requirement to change the constitution is a simple majority.” That uncited statement is contrary to fact on its face or grossly misleading in the alternative. A survey of the constitutions of each of the 50 states shows that only 18 states allow for any citizen-initiated constitutional amendment at all (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota). All other states require either a constitutional convention or referral from both houses of the legislature, neither of which compare to the situation here. Of the minority of states that even allow citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska and Nevada impose more onerous requirements than only a simple majority. Florida requires a 60 percent supermajority and Nevada requires a simple majority twice in two consecutive elections. Illinois, Mississippi and Nebraska all require double majorities (simple majority of voters on the amendment itself and 35 to 50 percent of all citizens voting in that election), all of which are far more onerous than the 10 percent the Honor Constitution currently holds. Additionally, Illinois and Mississippi both have subject matter restrictions: citizens in the former may only propose changes to structural and procedural subjects concerning their legislature, while the latter explicitly prohibits changes in the initiative process itself. Lastly, Massachusetts’ citizen-initiated process isn’t even direct — such a proposal must be approved by at least 25 percent of each legislative house in two separately elected legislative sessions before going to the public. This leaves a mere 12 states to support this contention, far fewer than half of the claimed 34.
Next, the sponsors of the current referendum have charged that student self-governance “dictates” the passage of an amendment to lower the qualified majority needed for constitutional reform. They contend that this referendum is the sole remedy for an honor system that remains “stubbornly resistant to change.” This claim is inconsistent with the recent history of the system. Since the Spring 2013 semester, a total of four binding amendments to the Honor Constitution have been ratified by the student body. One of these amendments introduced the Informed Retraction, the most significant reform to the system in a generation. The current 60 percent threshold has not impeded major — even foundational — changes to the Honor System, and many of these changes were in fact initiated by students acting independently of the Committee. A single, close vote does not provide a fully accurate diagnosis of a system that has repeatedly evolved to reflect student opinion for decades.
The proposal’s sponsors have implied that the Honor Committee has obstructed progress by attempting to protect the three-fifths threshold currently in the constitution. This, too, is contrary to fact. No student, Honor Committee member or otherwise, has publicly claimed that such an amendment would be “unprecedented,” as the letter suggests. The Committee has taken no official stance on the proposed amendment, choosing instead to conduct impartial outreach to inform the student body of the upcoming vote. Furthermore, when one looks at the constitutions of other agency organizations at the University, a three-fifths majority is comparatively low — the University Judiciary Committee’s Constitution, for example, requires a two-thirds supermajority to ratify an amendment. Even critics of the current amendment ratification process must acknowledge that a 60 percent qualified majority does not constitute an unusually high barrier to constitutional change.
There are numerous valid arguments in support of, and in opposition to, the current referendum. It adds to a long history of student-proposed amendments to the Honor Constitution, a powerful vehicle of student self-governance guaranteed by the very constitution it seeks to amend. We simply write this editorial to ensure that you, as you consider the arguments for and against the proposal, will do so fully aware of the relevant facts. Most importantly, we hope that you will take the decision before you seriously. No amendment to the Honor Committee’s Constitution is insignificant. Responsibly exercising the powers associated with student self-governance requires us to make informed choices, especially when those choices can result in lasting change.
Matt West, Austin Sim, Sarah Wyckoff, Ariana Zetlin and Katherine Graham are the executive members of the Honor Committee.