Point of Order: Who Has The Floor in DCGA Meetings?

By Oliver Gladfelter

DCGA, short for Denison Campus Governance Association, is charged with representing the student body. From making suggestions to administration, to allocating the student activities budget, what happens in Burton Morgan 115 every Tuesday night has major implications for Denison. Yet just as all 2,200 Denison students can’t agree on everything, the 48-person senate usually finds itself in division over key issues. These differences are resolved through extensive debate, in which senators compete to exert influence and ensure their constituents’ opinions are being represented. This has me thinking, though – are all senators equally capable at making their voices heard, or do some dominate the floor more than others?

Even though DCGA is fairly representative of the student body, not all opinions are being voiced equally. Every senator still has one vote when it comes to making decisions, but outcomes may be influenced by the debate before the vote, so uneven participation may have huge advantages to those doing all the talking. Some speech patterns emerge when you watch DCGA as closely as I have lately. Seniors on the exec board, or those who have been in DCGA every single semester of their college career, appear to speak frequently. Other times it’s the first-years, bursting with excitement and ready to make a change. Perhaps gender, race, or even if a senator is on their laptop have an impact.

To discern what kind of student senator is likely to speak the most, I timed every single comment made during debates and other open-floor discussions in DCGA over the course of four meetings.[1] For each meeting, I measured both how long and often senators spoke. As such, for any given meeting, an average of 49.3% of senators spoke at least once. The average senator speaks 1.5 times, or 3 times if you count only those who speak at least once. And 25.2 seconds is the average comment length. While each measurement has its own story, this article will focus on “total time” – the amount of time a senator spends talking during the course of an entire meeting. The average total time is 28.7 seconds…or so it appears.

 Figure 1 – The More Often You Talk, The Longer Your Total Time

figure1

Figure 1 shows the very linear relationship between how often a senator talks and their total time for each meeting. This suggests that senators tend to stay within the average of about 25 seconds per comment regardless of how frequently they speak. Certain individuals definitely raise their hand and ask for the floor much more than average, but even those senators respect the norm of appropriate speech act durations.[2]  

Notice the large cluster of zeros near the bottom left of Figure 1. Truth is, most senators’ voices aren’t being heard during meetings. Many senators will be quick to say that it often feels like the same 5-10 people do all the talking. This isn’t quite right, however. In each meeting, about half of present senators speak at least once. The keyword there, however, is “present.” Earlier I mentioned the average total time was 28.7 seconds, however excluding absent senators, the true average is actually 38.7 seconds.[3]

Obviously you can’t speak up if you don’t first show up. Attendance is the first step in doing your job, so we better hope senators are showing up; but as it turns out, attendance is one area DCGA could improve in. In nearly every meeting I tracked, about 10 senators were absent – nearly a quarter of the entire body (23.8%, to be exact). That’s a lot of voices not being heard. Moving forward, I’ll be omitting absent senators from my analyses.

Besides showing up, whether or not a senator holds a formal position – such as President, VP, or a committee chair – in the senate is the strongest predictor of how much they will talk. While the average total talk time for those without positions was 29.2 seconds, those in positions typically spoke in open floor debate for about 80 seconds per meeting. At first glance, it appears that upperclassman status and having more DCGA experience lead to more participation as well; the older you are, the longer you’ve been in DCGA, the more you speak. However, these differences are completely explained by the fact that these senators are simply more likely to hold a position. Put in other words, for those senators not in a position, all class years and senators of varying experience levels speak at the same rates – the exec positions just go to the older and more tenured senators, so we end up hearing more from them.[4]

Because debate is (somewhat) limited, talking a lot means there’s less time for others to speak. In this regard, the total time equates to their extent of floor control. For this reason, I was interested in seeing if variables relating to privilege or majority-status, such as race and gender, have any effects here. As it turns out, neither race nor gender correlate with total time, so the usual suspects aren’t playing a role in Denison’s student government.[5] What this means is that students aren’t losing representation or floor control because of their gender or race, which is encouraging for the outlook of the senate.

Often times, especially when DCGA has guest speakers, senators are reprimanded for their heavy laptop use. Although I have no way of measuring if laptop usage actually affects a senator’s ability to listen to others, I can say there’s no correlation in laptop use and total time – those on their laptops speak just as much as those refraining from technology use. Regardless, critics of the presence of technology in DCGA meetings may have a point – throughout all the meetings I tracked, an average of 49.6% of senators were on their laptop. Interestingly enough, this variable also correlates with the “date” variable.

 Table 1 – Despite Complaints, Laptop Use In DCGA Is A Growing Trendtable1

Due to DCGA’s formal procedures, there’s a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to being a senator. It’s something that takes practice and senators get more comfortable with it over time. For that reason, I expect that senators speak more and more as they become accustomed to the senate. And because I tracked the senate over the course of two months, I can test my hypothesis…

 Figure 2 – Total Times Grow With Each Subsequent Meeting

figure2

As it turns out, it’s true – each senator increased their total time by about 15 seconds per meeting. And this isn’t because they were making longer speeches either –  they still followed the 25 second norm, but requested the floor more frequently with each passing meeting. I also assumed this effect would be especially strong for newer senators, as they’re supposedly the ones with the most to learn. However, I was wrong on this one…

 Figure 3 – More Practice Most Affects the Long Tenured

figure3

While the trend for all senators is speaking more and more each meeting, this trend is especially true for the most tenured senators – new senators increased their total time by 12 seconds each meeting while those with two or more years of experience increased by 34.2 seconds. A similar story emerges when looking at position – while those without positions increased by 11 seconds per meeting, those with positions increased their total time by 42.6 seconds.

One great aspect of DCGA is that senators come open-minded and willing to listen to one another. Unlike in the US Senate, debate actually has the potential to influence votes and affect the eventual outcome. And this is exactly why it gives pause when only a few voices are consistently heard; all perspectives need to be presented for the body to make a truly democratic decision. Otherwise, just a handful of people are able to speak for the entire group and decisions are made without real deliberation, a key component of true democracy. As such, we should all care about the extent our favorite senators are participating in debate, because the better your senator is at representing your desires and opinions, the happier you’ll be with DCGA’s decisions. Now the question becomes, do senators even know what their constituents want? Do all non-senators have equal opportunity to express their desires and opinions to DCGA senators in the first place?

Oliver Gladfelter is a huge advocate of procrastination and spends most of his time finding new ways to waste time. He also studies political science on the side.


Notes

1 – The dates I collected data were November 8th, November 29th, December 6th, and December 13th.

2 – If you were curious how much text fits in 25 seconds (depending on how quickly you speak, of course), then here’s a look using Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (because this is also what DCGA debate sounds like) up to the light gray part:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

3 – This average still includes the many senators who were present in meetings but choose not to speak. Including only senators who spoke at least once, the average total talking time is 78.4 seconds.

4 – The relationship between holding an exec position and both class year and prior experience in DGCA has a p-value < 0.01. The senate has few underclassmen executive members, and it is a rarity for someone to be hold a position without any prior experience in the senate.

5 – To measure this, I perceived senators as male/female based on appearance. Because gender was not self-reported, it is possible my gender variable contains error.

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