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Observer Editorial: Accountability starts with transparency

| Friday, February 17, 2017

At 11:45 p.m. last Wednesday, the night of this year’s student body election, Judicial Council disclosed it would delay announcing the outcome of the election pending an appeal concerning allegations of misconduct related to campaign spending on the part of the juniors Rohit Fonseca and Daniela Narimatsu ticket. In a press release sent to campus media, Judicial Council said the ticket had purchased Facebook advertising prior to receiving proper approval from the Election Committee.

This happened only 15 minutes before the council was set to release the election results and almost three hours after electronic voting finished.

The appeals process transpired behind closed doors — including a 3 1/2-hour-long emergency student senate meeting last Thursday night — while the student body was left to make its best guess as to what the actions in question actually were, and their impact on the election results.

At 1:50 a.m. Friday morning — just over 24 hours after the results were due to be released — the student body received its first and only communication at all from Judicial Council regarding the election results: Becca Blais and Sibonay Shewit had won the election, receiving a majority of all votes. The final vote tallies revealed the sanctions handed down to Rohit Fonseca and Daniela Narimatsu’s campaign had no impact on the outcome of the election, rendering the circus of the last 26 hours inconsequential.

Not included in the email from Judicial Council was any clarification regarding what misconduct inspired the sanctions, nor why the council chose to deduct 7 percent — later reduced to 5 percent on appeal — of the Fonseca-Narimatsu ticket’s vote. Also missing from the message to the student body was the fact that the penalty dictated by the student union constitution for the violation in question is “forfeiture of candidacy.”

What transpired in the closed, 3 1/2-hour emergency student senate meeting called the day after the election? How did the Election Committee decide on a 7-percent deduction as an appropriate sanction? Was that penalty proportional to the severity of the alleged violations? Or was it simply an arbitrary number?

Once results were released, these questions persisted — all rooted in the lack of transparency throughout the election process.

This time, the penalty was inconsequential: The Blais-Shewit ticket had secured victory with or without the sanctions leveled against its opposition.

But consider another scenario: If the Fonseca-Narimatsu ticket had instead won a slim majority, the sanctions may have been enough to strip them of the win and hand it to Blais and Shewit.

Ultimately, though, the results of the election could have been decided entirely in secret, with no party holding significant accountability to the community as a whole.

Was the violation that forced the ticket to forfeit a portion of its votes a minor error, one that likely had minimal, if any, impact on votes? Or was it a more significant violation, where loss of candidacy would have been more appropriate?

In the scenario where Fonseca and Narimatsu had won more votes, no matter which ticket prevailed after the sanctions, students would have been left wondering why 7-percent, then 5-percent, penalties were levied. With no reasoning given, would the number have simply been chosen to orchestrate a specific result?

While the ultimate result meant we did not have to ask these questions this year, there is no evidence that similar problems might not happen in the future. In the majority of recent years, at least one ticket has been handed sanctions.

If those sanctions determined the result of an election, the student body would have a right to know the specifics — about the violation itself through to the decision-making process on the penalty.

Additionally, when it was announced that the results were being withheld, at least one of the tickets did not know there were any allegations or why the results would not be released that night. The following day, the Election Committee would not answer questions clarifying its decision on the basis that it would hamper the impartiality of the appeals process.

For a period of time, the specifics of the allegations were not made clear to even those who were intimately involved in the process, including the tickets, senators participating in the appeals hearing and the reporters responsible for relaying this information to the student body.

The Election Committee, which is appointed by the outgoing Judicial Council president, consists of eight voting and two non-voting members and exists to “review all allegations of potential elections misconduct and all potential regulations,” according to the Student Union Constitution. During elections, Judicial Council seeks to hold others accountable — but we are left wondering who holds Judicial Council accountable for its actions.

While Judicial Council may have had its reasons for the sanction it levied, the fact that the Election Committee seemingly ignored the penalty laid out in the constitution for this campaign violation is alarming. At the absolute minimum, if the committee is to stray from the constitution, there needs to be a clear explanation of the council’s reasoning to the constituents it claims to serve.

Had the emergency student senate meeting been open, perhaps the uncertainty would not exist. Sessions are typically open, such that any student can attend. Normally, student senate can vote by a two-thirds majority to close a meeting, however, the emergency session was closed without a vote.

Again, it appears the Election Committee disregarded the constitution it is supposed to abide by.

It is now clear the results of the election were not impacted by the sanction, which leads us to wonder if any member of Election Committee knew the results of the election at the time it decided on the sanction. Judicial Council president Caitlin Geary said in an email that the council’s president and its SAO advisor are the only individuals who would ever know of the election results until they are released to the candidates. However, the Judicial Council president is a non-voting member of the Election Committee, and once again, there is no outside system of accountability in place to verify this.

On the other hand, if the 7-percent — later 5-percent — deduction was truly arbitrarily decided, with the committee having no knowledge of the results, the committee used its unchecked power in a way that could have decided the election without due process.

While the sanctions were inconsequential this time around, when the student body is disenfranchised — as effectively occurred here — it has a right to know why.

Without more transparency, it would be possible for election results to be determined by the closed-door decisions of Judicial Council alone. Regardless of how or why the decision was made, the student body deserves an explanation.

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