Apr. 16, 2014

What went wrong?: Recent SA election prompts review of code

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April 2, 2012

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Flat Hat Chief Staff Writer Ellie Kaufman co-wrote this report. 

 

Eighteen complaints, four sanctions and three appeals tainted the six tickets vying for Student Assembly president last month.

A new crop of student representatives will enter the SA under a code rife with ambiguities made evident during the campaign season.

“Between the number of tickets running and how much people were going looking for violations, it was an election that has brought to light how many flaws are in the SA Code,” SA President Kaveh Sadeghian ’12 said.

A proposed elections review committee in the SA Senate would begin to investigate a host of ambiguities in the SA Code.

The Elections Commission

An Elections Commission, meant to be appointed by the SA Executive Branch, managed the election, organizing mandatory information sessions, handling complaints of violations of the SA Code, and preparing a debate for the candidates.

According to the SA Code, the SA President appoints the Chair and four other members to the Elections Commission. Due to a claimed conflict of interest, however, Sadeghian removed himself from the role and SA Vice President Molly Bulman ’12, along with other members of the Executive Branch, appointed the Elections Commission.

“I intentionally distanced myself from appointing an Elections Commission,” Sadeghian said. “Molly dealt a lot more with the elections. I just wanted to keep clear of a conflict of interest. I wanted to keep it as clean as possible.”

The Executive Branch of the SA posted a notice on Student Happenings for an Elections Commission Chair, hoping to gain outside perspective into the campaign process.

Tanuja Potdar ’13 was selected as chair of the Elections Commission. She had no prior experience with the SA. Potdar was unavailable to comment before press time.

Many candidates felt that the lack of SA experience was disadvantageous to the Elections Commission. Three commission members were freshmen and one was a sophomore.

“The Elections Commission was picked very last minute, and a lot of them weren’t quite sure of their duties,” former SA presidential candidate Dallen McNerney ’14 said. “They were completely in the dark at first, but it worked out.”

Former SA presidential candidate Noah Kim ’13 agreed but felt that the lack of experience was more of a fault within the SA than within the Elections Commission.

“I don’t think anyone can fault Tanuja for not being prepared enough by people with prior experience,” Kim said.

Potdar stepped down for personal reasons three days before the election. Sadeghian then appointed Bulman as interim Elections Commission Chair.

“[Tanuja] stepped down because she was sick. It really had nothing to do with the elections,” Bulman said.

After taking over, Bulman received 18 complaints charging candidates with violating the SA Code.

“In a race like this, it is tough to know who will win,” Bulman said. “Any complaint that is filed takes away time that those candidates could be campaigning to deal with the investigation, to appeal to the review board, or to potentially be suspended.”

Ambiguities in the SA Code

Bulman investigated a list of complaints ranging from accusations of double flyering, libel, door-to-door campaigning and bribery. Upon receiving complaints, Bulman investigated with the help of the commission.

“For Class One through Class Three violations alike, the commissioner receives a complaint, notifies the candidate, and conducts an investigation with the testimony of that candidate,” Bulman said. “There is no time frame for when this has to be done. [The code] just says in a timely manner.”

Bulman responded to all complaints within an hour of receiving them. Potdar received a complaint of slander on March 15, but the candidate accused was not notified until March 20.

Former SA presidential candidates David Alpert ’13 and Kim were both sanctioned with door-to-door campaigning the day before the election. Alpert appealed the sanction, but the sanction was upheld, resulting in a 12-hour suspension.

The SA Code lists “campaigning by door-to-door solicitation, as defined by College policy,” as a Class Two infraction under campaign regulations. In order to define door-to-door, College policy refers to the Residence Life manual, which further refers to procedures detailing the use of campus facilities.

“I said this is what I did, and I said this hasn’t been defined,” Alpert said. “They said, ‘Alright, this is how we are defining it, and what you did was wrong.’ I am not saying I was right, and they are wrong, but why are we not asking questions here?”

Kim received an identical sanction the night before the election but did not appeal. His campaign was suspended until 5:30 a.m. on election day.

“I have this working knowledge, and I’ve been a big reformer of the SA Code,” Kim said. “My interpretation was an honest interpretation, not only based on an open reading of the SA Code but based on past perspective.”

Class Two violations are punishable by “a suspension of active campaign privileges for a set period of time,” according to the code.

Alpert’s suspension began at 5:30 p.m. before election day, but he did not appeal his case until later that evening.

“Since he knocked on a closed door, we found it as a violation,” Chair of the SA Review Board David Wasserstein ’14 said.

By the time Kim’s suspension was upheld, Alpert had already been suspended for six hours. Although candidates are required to refrain from actively campaigning during a suspension, questions surrounding social media activity — from links to websites, videos, Facebook profile pictures, and status updates — during a suspension still arose.

“When do sanctions start? What does a suspension mean in terms of social media presence? … Especially, do you have to take your website down?” Alpert said. “That hasn’t been clarified.”

When SA President Elect Curt Mills ’13 was sanctioned for slander, later changed to libel, he received an email from the Elections Commission notifying him of the terms of his suspension.

“Unfortunately, the Elections Commission had to take this into consideration and give you a 24 hours campaign ban, which will start at 7 a.m. on March 20, 2012,” the Elections Commission said in an email. “You have until 7 a.m. to make sure that all fliers are down, all profile pictures that have you two are down, your twitter is down, etc.”

After receiving the notice, Mills and SA Vice President Elect Melanie Levine ’13 filed an appeal with the SA Review Board. They met with the SA Review Board at 9 a.m., two hours after their suspension began.

“If we committed libel, which we didn’t, we weren’t given notice,” Mills said.

A complaint was filed against McNerney for a Class Three infraction of bribery. McNerney hosted a barbeque outside of the Bryan Complex the day before the election, giving away free food. The complaint was not found to be valid, and no sanction was filed.

Under Class Three infractions, the code states, “bribery of a voter shall be defined as the promise or provision of money or any tangible incentive associated with voting for a particular candidate.” However, past precedent suggested that food giveaways were acceptable.

“If I had any indication that it would have been bribery, I wouldn’t have done it,” McNerney said. “We weren’t doing it specifically for a vote.”

With multiple SA veterans comprising the six pairs of candidates running and an Elections Commission chaired by the current SA Vice President, past experience weighed heavily on decisions made throughout the campaign process.

“There is no real record of what decisions [have] been made in the past,” Elections Commission member Katie Pietras ’15 said. “The rules aren’t very well defined.”

The SA Review Board, utilized mainly during election season, handled two appeals and gave advice on various complaints. Wasserstein explained that the SA Review Board handles matters pertaining to the SA Code and recognized the lack of clarity within the code brought to light during this election.

“The Code is definitely not black and white. … There’s a lot of gray area,” Wasserstein said.

Reform of the SA Code

Following the SA election, the SA senate proposed the creation of an elections review committee and the SA Presidential Runoff Act during their meeting on March 27.

“It really needs to be clarified, and I am glad that there will be a special commission in the senate to clarify that language,” Bulman said.

If passed, Bulman, Kim and other members of the SA will join forces to establish the SA elections review committee and focus on those parts of the Code questioned in the recent election.

“[The candidates] were all hyper-aware of the SA Code,” Wasserstein said. “I think where we find all of those ambiguities in the SA Code, we need to address them.”

Sen. Jimmy Zhang ’15 also sponsored the Student Assembly Presidential Runoff Act. The Act would amend the SA Code to include runoff elections for any election in which there are at least three tickets and the top ticket fails to obtain 50 percent or more of the vote.

The current system does not require a majority vote. In the most recent election, Mills defeated Alpert by 1 percent, or 36 votes.

Some candidates expressed disappointment with the lack of a majority.

“I don’t think that having six candidates on the ballot is a good thing because you end up with somebody winning when a majority of people didn’t vote for them, and I just feel that is not the best way to have someone elected to represent the entire student body,” former SA presidential candidate Grace Colby ’13 said.

In order to improve the Elections Commission, other candidates suggested earlier selection of members and an extended training period for potential Elections Commission members.

“It is one of those things where you have a job for two weeks in Sept. and two weeks in March, so you are not doing anything, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be appointed earlier, and you can use those intervening six months to get prepared,” Alpert said.

A general lack of organization also plagued the election. On election day, Sadeghian failed to add the referendum questions previously agreed upon in an SA senate meeting. He admitted the mishap was a personal mistake and plans to send them out in a campus-wide email in the coming weeks.

Many candidates expressed that better overall organization within the election process could benefit all involved, especially before the campaign season begins.

“If we had more time before elections, we might have been able to hash out some things beforehand,” McNerney said.

For many candidates, the election exposed flaws in the SA’s influence on campus in general.

“I have no regrets in calling out people publicly for not showing up to meetings or doing what they’ve been elected to do,” Kim said. “The negative element of that is when the student body’s perception of the SA is that apathy is a problem, it breeds this image that SA’s not an effective body. Then the student body doesn’t get involved.”

“It’s Politics”

Six potential presidential candidates does not suggest apathy regarding involvement in student government, but it does breed an atmosphere of tense competition. Andrew Canakis ’13 was the only presidential candidate who had never served in the SA before.

“Coming in as an outsider, I was not expecting to be welcomed with open arms,” Canakis said. “I think right from the beginning all of these kids were after each other. It was like prey versus predator.”

Alpert noticed heightened student interest in this year’s campaign, which was evident in the increased competition.

“I think people picked sides really quickly, and that leads to, ‘If you are working for someone you are working against the other five,’” Alpert said. “Your radar goes up. What are they doing? Is it right or is it wrong?”

Colby sent the Elections Commission a complaint against Mills for slander, later revised by the Commission to libel, after her name appeared on Mills’s website under his finance platform.

“It’s fine to not agree with my policies but not when it is not based in fact,” Colby said. “I don’t think it is fair to call me out specifically when other candidates were also involved in the finance process.”

A screenshot of Mills’s website described his plans to increase funding for student organizations but claimed that “the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Grace Colby, instead voted that the money should remain unused in the SA Reserve Fund,” and referred to the International Relations Club, which originally received no money from the SA, as an example. Colby addressed Mills personally, saying the phrase targeted her campaign. When Mills failed to remove the phrase, Colby reported the violation to the Elections Commission.

“We originally allocated [the IR Club] zero dollars, and [we] expected them to appeal it so they could come in and have a conversation about it,” Colby said. “I put myself on the line reporting Curt, and, in the end, I thought it was the right decision. I was trying to preserve whatever integrity was left in this race.”

Mills appealed the sanction to the SA Review Board, and the SA Review Board overturned the  sanction. The SA Review Board found that the facts listed in Mills’ statement were accurate and thus dismissed the charges.

“We were targeted because we were seen as the forerunners throughout the campaign,” Mills said. “Grace achieved her aim. We stayed up all night working on [the appeal].”

During the campaign, Sadeghian supported Colby and running mate Alyssa Zhu ’14.

“I personally did [back a candidate], but I did my best to distance it with my position,” Sadeghian said. “I personally helped out with as much as I could with whatever resources I could. I never changed my profile picture or made it my status.”

Colby and Zhu were suspended for the first 12 hours of the campaign period because Zhu missed the mandatory interest meetings. The Elections Commission scheduled a makeup session for Zhu and other candidates March 19. However, some candidates became suspicious of Sadeghian’s role and his personal support of a candidate when Colby and Zhu were still allowed to compete in the election.

“Kaveh is a good person. He did what he thought was right. I think he used his power inappropriately, though,” Mills said. “Her candidacy shouldn’t have been allowed. If this was any other candidate, I don’t think it would have happened.”

Mills does not plan on getting involved in next year’s election to the same extent as Sadeghian.

“We’re not going to be endorsing candidates in the future,” Mills said.

While several complaints were found to be invalid after investigation by the Commission, a large number were still filed.

“I think when there is the attitude and the feeling that the rules don’t matter, people are going to do whatever they think is going to get them elected. If that means breaking the rules [when] they are going to get away with it, then they are going to do it,” Colby said. “I don’t blame any one candidate for taking advantage of a system. It’s politics.”

Heated competition combined with the ambiguities in the SA Code has left many SA members with a desire to re-evaluate and clarify terms before freshmen elections in the fall.

“I think if the SA Code is clarified and the Chair is prepared to interpret the SA Code fairly, they should have a great election in the fall,” Bulman said.

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About Author

Katherine Chiglinsky

Senior staff writer Katherine Chiglinsky '14 is an English and economics major from Roanoke, Va. She was previously Editor-in-Chief, News Editor, Variety Editor and Associate Variety Editor.

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