Harvard will embark on a transition enabling degree holders to vote online in the annual elections for the University’s Board of Overseers and directors of the Harvard Alumni Association, according to changes recently adopted by the University’s governing boards following a review of election practices in 2015–16. The boards also adopted changes related to eligibility for Overseers service and requirements to qualify for the ballot by petition.

Harvard is highly unusual among colleges and universities in giving its degree holders the opportunity to vote for nearly all the members of one of its governing boards. All members of the Board of Overseers—except for the University’s president and treasurer, who serve ex officio—are elected by Harvard degree holders, with five new members typically elected each year to six-year terms.

Under the current system, eligible voters receive paper ballots by regular mail, record their votes by hand, and return the completed ballots by mail. The new system, expected to be launched by academic year 2018–19, will permit voting through a secure website, without receiving or returning ballots by mail. Paper ballots will likely remain available to voters who prefer them, at least for an interim period.

“We’re pleased to move to online voting, which alumni around the world have asked us to adopt,” said Kenji Yoshino, AB ’91, president of the Board of Overseers for 2016–17. “We will make this change as soon as we can put a secure and reliable system in place.”

In addition, alumni will be able to vote online in the concurrent annual election for members of the Harvard Alumni Association board of directors, which includes a mix of elected, appointed, and ex officio members.

The governing boards also adopted changes relating to eligibility for Overseer service. With very rare exceptions in recent decades, candidates for Overseer have held degrees from Harvard. Looking forward, the boards determined that all Overseer candidates should hold Harvard degrees.

“Our contributions as Overseers take root in our longstanding experiences with the University and the commitment we feel to its progress and best interests,” said Nicole Parent Haughey, AB ’93, vice chair of the Overseers executive committee. “We felt it important to affirm that Overseers should be drawn from the extraordinary ranks of the hundreds of thousands of people who hold Harvard degrees.”

Each year, a committee formed by the Harvard Alumni Association nominates candidates for Overseer, as well as for HAA elected director. Following extensive deliberations, the committee ordinarily presents eight nominees for five vacancies on the Board of Overseers, as well as nine nominees for six vacancies among the HAA directors. In the Overseers election, individuals may also qualify for the ballot by obtaining a specified number of signatures “by petition” from alumni eligible to vote.

Aspiring petition candidates wishing to gather signatures have historically had to obtain official nomination forms printed on watermarked paper from the University, arrange to distribute those forms among potential supporters who may be geographically dispersed, secure voters’ signatures along with information validating their eligibility to vote, and return the signed forms to the University.

Starting in 2016–17, aspiring petition candidates will have a more convenient way to gather support: an eligible voter will be able to go online to generate a petition form, then sign and return it by email or regular mail.

At the same time, the required number of signatures will increase to one percent of the number of eligible voters in the previous election. (There were some 265,000 degree holders eligible to vote in spring 2016.)

This increase was adopted in view of such factors as the magnitude of alumni support considered appropriate to qualify for the ballot; the fact that in recent years the number of required signatures—just over 200–has been barely more than what was required a century ago, when there were around 20,000 alumni eligible to vote; the trustee selection practices of various peer institutions, including those that invite alumni to vote for board members and those that do not; and the introduction of a petition form that will be available online.

The next elections for Overseers and HAA elected directors will take place in spring 2017. For information on the current membership of the Board of Overseers, see http://www.harvard.edu/about-harvard/harvards-leadership/board-overseers.

Drawing on the wide-ranging experience and expertise of its members, the Board of Overseers provides counsel to the University leadership on priorities, strategic directions, and plans, and has the power of consent to certain actions of the Corporation, the University’s other governing board. The Board’s chief functions include superintendence of the visitation process, the principal mechanism for periodic external review of the quality and direction of the University’s schools, departments, and selected other programs and activities. The Board carries out this responsibility largely through the operation of more than 50 visiting committees, whose work is overseen by and reported to the Board.

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