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Election committee decision warrants explanation

Editorial Board | Friday, February 18, 2011

A campaign “ethics clause” violation that delayed the results of Monday’s student body election results did not, in all likelihood, change the final outcome of the entire process, which came to a close Thursday night with the announcement that junior Pat McCormick and sophomore Brett Rocheleau would serve as the next student body president and vice president, respectively.

But the violation, and the process the Election Committee of Judicial Council used to determine its sanction demands a public explanation that has not been given — and likely won’t be at all.

The facts of the case, as told to The Observer, are these: On Sunday night, student body president candidate James Ward, the current junior class president, sent an e-mail to a number of students in which he criticized the performance of this year’s student government and accused current leaders of being “content to rest on their … laurels.”

On Monday morning, the day of the student body election, an allegation was filed against Ward’s ticket, prompting a Monday night meeting of the Election Committee to address the allegation. Meanwhile, the decision was made to seal the election results until the allegation was resolved, in order to avoid allowing the “knowledge of the results [to] influence the hearing process,” said Michael Thomas, judicial council vice president of elections.

At its meeting Monday, the committee determined an “ethics clause” violation had occurred and decided on its sanction: to require Ward to submit an apology e-mail to Judicial Council by 11:59 p.m. Monday that would then be distributed to the entire student body. Ward complied but also filed an appeal of the allegation, which he dropped Tuesday evening. The appeal would have given Student Senate the opportunity to review and, if necessary, revise the original sanction.

But when the appeal was dropped, Senate was no longer required to meet. Ward’s apology e-mail and the original election results were distributed Tuesday night, setting up a Thursday runoff election between McCormick-Rocheleau and Ward and his running mate, Heather Eaton. Current student body president Catherine Soler and her running mate Emily LeStrange were eliminated from the ballot after receiving seven fewer votes than the Ward-Eaton ticket.

The Observer’s Editorial Board acknowledges the difficulties the Election Committee must have faced in handling the allegation, and understands some of the complexities that may have been inherent to alternative solutions. Other solutions could have been eliminating the Ward-Eaton ticket from consideration altogether, or calling for a “do-over” election, which would allow the Soler-LeStrange ticket to proceed to a three-way runoff. While the Constitution does not expressly allow for this possibility, it does give the judicial committee complete control over sanctions.

Perhaps these alternatives were considered but were deemed unsatisfactory or unfeasible — a decision we could understand, but one we believe must be shared and defended not behind the closed doors of a committee meeting, but in an open forum that can reach the entire student body.

Regardless of the challenges and imperfections of these alternatives, each proposal would have made at least some impact on the results of Monday’s election — something the Election Committee’s final decision completely and utterly failed to do.

In considering and critiquing our proposed alternatives, we could debate the seriousness of the violation. But the Election Committee, by ruling that a violation transpired, acknowledged that inappropriate behavior had occurred and an unfair advantage had been gained, at least to some degree. It would be difficult in any case to accurately quantify the impact a violation may have had on an election’s results, and this is especially true in this case because of the uncertainty related to the number of students who received, and then cast votes as a result of, Ward’s e-mail Sunday night.

We understand the sentiment behind the decision to keep the initial election results until the violation had been handled, but given the nature of the violation, the parties involved and, finally, the results of the Monday’s election, how can a rational, effective decision be made and sanction handed down without an attempt to consider how the violation may have affected the voting? Given the narrow gap between the Ward-Eaton and Soler-LeStrange tickets in the initial election (seven votes), and the fact that the violation stemmed from Ward’s criticism of a student government Soler currently leads, one must consider the strong possibility that the violation was the difference in determining which ticket advanced to a runoff with McCormick-Rocheleau.

Would such a runoff have changed the final result? That is, of course, impossible to determine, but the sizable margin between McCormick-Rocheleau and Ward-Eaton in both Monday’s election (38 percent to 23 percent, to Soler-LeStrange’s 22 percent) and Thursday’s runoff (64 percent to 36 percent) suggests that the student body strongly made clear its choice for student government leadership.

Some might argue that the election of McCormick and Rocheleau renders irrelevant any discussion of the violation and sanction. Instead, we urge next year’s student leaders to remember all the events of this week, and to consider them significant evidence of a need for transparency in a student government McCormick and Rocheleau aim to redefine.