Duke Student Government has no official political parties, but an analysis of the Senate’s voting records shows several networks of people who vote in similar ways.
On average, any two senators vote the same way roughly 53 percent of the time, according to the records. However, some senators vote similarly at a higher rate. One group of senators—including many who serve on the equity and outreach committee and the Durham and regional affairs committee—is tightly connected by their voting patterns. This "progressive" group has pushed the Senate to take action on a number of controversial issues on campus. Another group of "gradualist" DSG members has been described as more restrained, especially on fiscal issues, and includes a socially conservative "Freedom Caucus." A final "independent" group acts as swing voters on a number of issues.
These networks are derived from an analysis of roll call votes, in which the vote of each Senator present is recorded and published. Roll call votes are generally among the most contentious of Senate votes. DSG Senate has held 22 roll call votes this year, on issues ranging from funding access to The New York Times for undergraduates to subsidizing the Chanticleer, the student yearbook.
“We’re in a highly tense, highly political environment discussing issues that really matter, so it does get pretty polarized,” said Executive Vice President Ilana Weisman, a junior and outgoing vice president for equity and outreach. “Once people find people they can work well with, [groups] kind of naturally develop.”
She and several other DSG members said that they believed the patterns in the voting network reflected the dynamics they regularly saw in the Senate. DSG members also noted that several of the Senate committees tend to vote together, which may explain some of the grouping. They added that personal friendships are extremely important as well.
Ideology-based voting blocs
Weisman is a part of DSG’s most tightly knit voting group, the "progressives," colored in blue in the graphic. This group has voted similarly on issues such as the Peer Advocacy for Sexual Health center and resolutions supporting the rights of protesters inside the Allen Building. Many senators and vice presidents described this group as “socially liberal,” and noted that it consists of members of the equity and outreach committee.
The second "gradualist" group, which is more loosely connected and colored in red in the graphic, includes many members of the social culture committee. Senior Bryan Dinner, outgoing vice president for social culture, said that he has sometimes changed his vote on contentious issues to align with other gradualists on his committee. He explained that he consults his committee's GroupMe during meetings.
DSG members described the gradualist group as more “conservative” and less willing to spend money. Senior Jay Sullivan, outgoing senator for equity and outreach, said that he saw a couple of different subgroups within the gradualists. He noted that a more frugal subgroup—which includes incoming DSG President Tara Bansal, a junior, and senior Brian Hopkins, outgoing Senate President Pro-tempore—is often reluctant to approve large funding requests. Bansal agreed that she often has reservations about spending and is grouped in the network with similarly-minded individuals.
“In real life, I’m very liberal, but I’m fiscally conservative with DSG funds,” she explained.
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Hopkins declined to comment for this article.
Sullivan also identified a "Freedom Caucus" within the gradualists, consisting of senators who he said were socially as well as fiscally conservative and played a role in attempting to pass legislation repealing parts of the PASH center's funding. Sullivan said that this group—which he named in reference to the conservative U.S. House of Representatives group of the same name—included individuals such as sophomore Edward Torgas, senator for residential life, sophomore John Caldwell, senator for social culture and freshman Kuber Madhok, senator for social culture.
Caldwell agreed that he tends to vote with several of the senators Sullivan included in the group.
"Some of us work together on the same committee, so I think we have the same goals and ambitions," he explained. "When there's a big vote coming up, we have a conversation about it before the vote occurs."
However, Caldwell took issue with Sullivan's characterization of the group as conservative, saying that he personally was neither fiscally nor socially conservative. Caldwell pointed to his work on the surplus committee as an example of his willingness to spend money, and said that characterizing him as socially conservative was "not accurate."
Torgas declined to comment for this story.
DSG members had a harder time characterizing the third "independent" group in the network, colored in green in the graphic. Several noted that the group contains a number of freshman senators. Sullivan said that the group can tend to be swing voters on issues when the Senate is split.
“This is like your swing vote group. It’s mostly young students,” he explained. “They’re impressionable in both directions, in my opinion.”
Freshman Josh Curtis, senator for academic affairs and a member of the third group, said that he saw the group as people who could be swayed by concerns about student rights.
“[We] generally tend more toward the social justice and equality arguments but are persuaded by discussion of rights and not stepping on people’s toes and due process,” Curtis said.
Several DSG senators had relatively fewer votes in common with other DSG members. Some of these members, such as senior Nicholas Andrade, freshman Alec Lintz and freshman Alejandra Uria, have had numerous absences and have missed many roll-call votes. Other senators have fewer common votes even though they have been active members of the Senate. For example, sophomore Sean Gilbert, senator for Durham and regional affairs, has not voted with any other senator more than 75 percent of the time. He tends to vote most often with senators such as Edward Torgas and junior John Turanchik, incoming Senate President Pro tempore.
Although many DSG members said that the patterns in the voting network made sense to them, a few said they were surprised by certain elements of the patterns. In particular, several senators and vice presidents said they did not realize that certain pairs of individuals had voted together frequently.
Bansal noted that the variety of people within each group interested her as well.
“If you look at the distribution, they’re very varied,” she said. “You have a junior who just joined DSG right next to someone who’s been on DSG for four years.”
Sullivan said that the role of individual senators and voting blocs has become more important this year. Previously, DSG's Executive Board members would exercise more influence over decisions and the Senate would approve measures by unanimous consent more often. He explained that this year there are more roll-call votes and less unanimous agreement.
"The efforts to make senators more active and involved and have stronger voices have yielded this situation this year where people have been much more engaged and have also been willing to stand up for things they believe in even if DSG doesn't agree with them." he said.
Sullivan noted that senators are now more concerned with placating groups with opposing views, as opposed to convincing members of the Executive Board.
Junior Tanner Lockhead, vice president for Durham and regional affairs, declined to comment for this story.