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What just happened? Breaking down the student government election

| Monday, March 5, 2018

Dominique DeMoe | The Observer

Three tickets.

Two elections.

Five rounds of sanctions.

Four appeals filed.

Two appeals heard.

402 students’ votes invalidated.

On Feb. 25 — after a month-long campaign process that included countless hours of allegation hearings and sanction appeals, a runoff election and several unsubstantiated rumors — juniors Gates McGavick and Corey Gayheart were elected student body president and vice president.

However, due to two sanctions delivered by the Judicial Council Election Committee requiring McGavick and Gayheart and their runoff opponents — juniors Alex Kruszewski and Julia Dunbar — to forfeit 12 and 10 percent of the votes cast for them, respectively, 402 of the 3,592 students who voted for either ticket in the runoff election saw their votes invalidated.

Furthermore, due to confidentiality requirements of the student government election process outlined by the Student Union Constitution, many students do not understand why this was the case.

The Observer spoke with many different parties involved with the election process — directly and otherwise — in an attempt to piece together what just happened.

Establishing the tone

Judicial Council announced Jan. 31 that three tickets would be running for student body president and vice president: juniors Alex Kruszewski and Julia Dunbar, juniors Gates McGavick and Corey Gayheart and freshmen Andrew Gannon and Mark Moran.

Kruszewski and Dunbar declined to be interviewed, answer questions via email or comment for this story other than to “reiterate how grateful [they] are to [their] supporters and team, who were absolutely incredible and ran a fantastic campaign.

Five days prior to announcing the three tickets, however, Judicial Council announced via a press release that McGavick and Gayheart would be required to suspend their campaign for five hours from the start of campaigning. This was because “the ticket was found to have petitioned in classrooms directly after class periods” when McGavick and Gayheart were gathering signatures to become an official ticket in the race for student body president and vice president, according to the release.

McGavick and Gayheart appealed the Election Committee’s decision later that day, and over the course of a closed three-hour appeal hearing, the student senate reduced the ticket’s sanction from a five-hour suspension of campaigning to a two-hour suspension.

This first allegation, sanction and hearing process, McGavick said, “set the tone” of the election before it officially got underway.

To be as vague as I can, the recommendation for punishment … would have seriously, seriously affected our future careers and times at Notre Dame,” McGavick said. “I think that set the tone for us pretty early. We went into that office kind of knowing that there could be some minor thing we could mess up on, and we were happy to accept the penalty for the first thing. But when we came out of the office having seen the recommendation for punishment from whoever filed the allegation, then Corey and I were pretty stunned.”

The follow-up to these allegations occurred Feb. 2, when the Election Committee sanctioned the Kruszewski-Dunbar ticket after junior David Carmack — who identified himself in a Letter to the Editor published Feb. 6 — brought forth allegations claiming the Kruszewski-Dubar ticket appeared to be implying it was endorsed by members of the University administration on one of its platform points.

As an “appropriate sanction” for what the Election Committee determined to be a violation of Section 17.1(f)(6) of the Student Union Constitution, Judicial Council announced in a press release, Kruszewski and Dunbar had to rewrite the platform point in question — a promise to decrease tuition.

While Carmack declined to comment for this story, he said in his Letter to the Editor that he filed an appeal of the decision with the student senate in order to “ask for a harsher penalty” and raise his concerns that McGavick and Gayheart had been punished more severely for a lesser offense.

This appeal, however, was not heard because the student senate failed to meet quorum — the minimum number of voting members required to be present in order to hold a meeting — by one member. As a result, and per the Student Union Constitution, the appeal was cancelled and the Election Committee’s original decision was upheld.

This instance of the student senate not reaching quorum to hear an appeal, senior Judicial Council president Matt Ross said, was one moment in which Ross identified an area of the Student Union Constitution he would like to see revised after election season ends.

Obviously, the senate — we try as hard as we can to get quorum if an appeal is filed. And I know from Judicial Council, from my perspective, there is certainly a lot of work I want to do looking at the appeals section of the constitution over the next few weeks that we still have in office,” Ross said. “That’s certainly something that I’ve talked to a few people about, and it’s definitely a place where we think we can improve the constitution and make it more effective.”

These two initial allegations and subsequent sanctions meant that by the time the first student body presidential debate took place Feb. 5, the only ticket to not have any allegations filed against it was the Gannon-Moran ticket.

Despite running as part of a Zahm House tradition, Gannon said he and Moran were careful to not violate any election rules specifically laid out for them. In addition, Moran said he believes no one felt the need to file allegations against their ticket because students weren’t taking their candidacy seriously.

“I think that people didn’t think we were a threat, so they didn’t really feel the need to really come out and damage our standing in the election,” Moran said. “But also the fact that we didn’t do anything that directly attacked one of the other candidates — if someone attacks you, obviously you want retribution for that. But we didn’t attack anyone.”

Gannon said the ticket’s primary goal was to introduce a lighthearted aspect to the student body presidential elections, a mindset with which the two approached the first debate.

“The student body debate we thought was a huge success — the first one at least,” Gannon said. “We tried to bring some levity to the situation, show people that student government is a great option for people, but let’s not take it too seriously.”

Despite the added humor Gannon and Moran introduced to the election, however, the tone turned negative again in the early hours of Feb. 6. Judicial Council announced in another press release that McGavick and Gayheart were required to publicly apologize on behalf of one of their supporters due to “Election Regulations based on Section 17.1(g)” of the Student Union Constitution, which the press release said read, “You are responsible for your actions as well as the actions of your supporters.”

The supporter, senior Devon Chenelle, had posted a comment to a post on his personal Facebook page endorsing McGavick and Gayheart and used an offensive term in the process of responding to a Kruszewski-Dunbar supporter. Chenelle did not immediately respond to The Observer’s request for comment. Editor’s note: Chenelle is a former columnist for The Observer.

In compliance with the Election Committee’s sanction requiring them to post a public apology, the McGavick-Gayheart campaign posted a statement to its Facebook page Feb. 6 requesting that students “remain respectful at all times when demonstrating any sort of support for [the] ticket, whether it be on social media or in person.”

“There is no place for any sort of division or disrespect during a student body presidential campaign,” the statement said. “We are all part of the Notre Dame family, and should remain united as brothers and sisters.”

McGavick said this moment, to him, was a cut-and-dry aspect of the campaign process.

“It was the acts of a supporter that we publicly apologized for, and it was really important that we apologized,” McGavick said.

After delivering their apology, McGavick and Gayheart intended to remain positive during the final days leading up to the election.

“Moving forward, we want to finish this campaign on a high note with a focus on positivity and respect, especially for all those who have in some way dedicated time to this election,” their Feb. 6 statement said. “This election is important, but absolutely nothing is more important than maintaining the University’s core values.”

The first forfeiture of votes

In addition to an article recapping the debate and candidate profiles for all three tickets, The Observer released its endorsement of the McGavick-Gayheart ticket the morning of Feb. 6.

Later that day, senior Ryan Brickner said he received text messages from Kruszewski asking Brickner to recruit “some rogue xahmbies,” referring to Brickner’s Zahm House dormmates, to post comments on social media posts with the endorsement congratulating McGavick and Gayheart on “promising [The Observer Editorial Board] positions” and claiming that doing so “worked in getting [McGavick-Gayheart] the endorsement.”

Senior and former Editor-in-Chief of The Observer Ben Padanilam denied the claims Kruszewski expressed in his text messages to Brickner.

“The claims contained in the text messages that The Observer Editorial Board received bribes from a ticket in this election and that those bribes were in exchange for our endorsement are categorically false,” Padanilam said. “The members of our Editorial Board who voted for which ticket to endorse sat through hours of interviews with all three tickets, discussed the merits of each ticket and spent hours composing an editorial which laid out in detail why it felt the McGavick-Gayheart ticket offered the most reasonable and feasible plan for the student body. It is a shame that the work of all the individuals involved was even brought into question by such baseless allegations.”

Brickner, who chose to go on the record with The Observer as the one who filed the allegations against the Kruszewski-Dunbar ticket, said although he didn’t feel particularly strongly about the outcome of the election, he became more uncomfortable with the messages he received the longer he thought about them.

“At first, I thought it was kind of funny — like, ‘This is so bold, I’m certainly not going to do that. But also, I’m pretty sure this is very unethical,’” Brickner said. “ … This is instructing someone to defame another candidate and instructing somebody to get other people to defame another candidate.”

After sending a screenshot of the text messages to many of his friends — causing the messages to circulate throughout the student body over the course of the day — Brickner filed an allegation with the Judicial Council and presented his case in a hearing that night.

“It was a pretty clear, cut-and-dry case, I thought. And part of [what the Election Committee wanted to know] was what my intentions were in filing the allegations,” Brickner said. “I told them, at first I didn’t think much of it, I thought it was a joke. But just the more I thought about it, the more it started bothering me. Again, I really didn’t care who won. But at least have a fair and clean election, at the very least.”

Ross spoke to the general process of allegation hearings, confirming that members of the Election Committee confirm the validity of any evidence brought forth in hearings.

As the Election Committee, we have to make sure it is verifiable, make sure it is legitimate, make sure the claims in there are accurate and we try to do that to the best of our ability,” Ross said. “We do that with any evidence, text messages — we ask them to make sure this hasn’t been tampered with. So across the board … we definitely do the due diligence to make sure the evidence we are presenting before the Election Committee is legitimate to the best of our knowledge.”

In the early hours of Feb. 7, election day, the Election Committee announced what it had determined to be an appropriate sanction through a Judicial Council press release: The ticket would be required to forfeit 10 percent of the votes it received because it was found to have engaged in unethical behavior, which Judicial Council defines as including “monopolization of limited bulletin board space, covering or defaming of any other candidates’ posters, insulting or defaming other candidates, and harassment or misconduct toward any election officials.”

This sanction, Ross said, was determined partially due to the precedent set in the 2017 student body presidential election, when seniors Rohit Fonseca and Daniela Narimatsu were required to forfeit 7 percent — reduced to 5 percent after the student senate heard Fonseca and Narimatsu’s appeal — of votes they received in the election.

Last year, there was a precedent for that — and one example in a hall election a few years back — where a certain percentage of votes were forfeited for that hall,” he said. “But as far as using it in a student body election, I think last year, to my knowledge, was pretty much the first example of that. And then as we moved forward this year, using last year’s precedent that we established certainly informed our decisions with the sanctions that the Election Committee came up with this year.”

Part of the reasoning for this, Ross said, comes down to timing. He said it is difficult for the Election Committee to come up with an effective and appropriate punishment for a ticket on the day of an election.

“One of the things we really have to look at is if it’s feasible as an Election Committee,” Ross said. “ … So the Election Committee has to come up with what is the most appropriate sanction for the violation they have found the ticket to be in.”

Kruszewski and Dunbar filed an appeal of the Election Committee’s sanction, which the student senate heard during a closed hearing after its regularly-scheduled meeting, after voting in the election had closed at 8 p.m. The group upheld the Election Committee’s original decision, and the 10 percent deduction of votes stood.

The first results and runoff campaign

Just after midnight Feb. 8, Judicial Council announced that the election would move to a runoff between the Kruszewski-Dunbar ticket and the McGavick-Gayheart ticket.

While Judicial Council kept the official breakdown of votes private after the initial election and neither the Kruszewski-Dunbar nor the McGavick-Gayheart ticket revealed the number of votes they received, Gannon and Moran said they received 18 percent of the votes cast in the election.

“We were really proud of that, cause I guess no one really expects that from a joke campaign,” Gannon said. “Considering we got a fifth of the student body vote, we’re pretty proud of that. I think without us there probably wouldn’t have been a runoff. … But us taking that 18 percent I feel like kind of prolonged the process, and that was what we set out to accomplish, was kind of to screw things up.”

This breakdown of votes did prolong the election, as not only did the process move to a runoff election, but the remaining tickets — with the student senate’s approval — also chose to postpone campaigning until Feb. 19 and delay the runoff election until Feb. 23 in order to allow time to properly mourn Sister Mary McNamara, the rector of Breen-Phillips Hall who died Feb. 7 due to complications from a stroke. When campaigning did resume Feb. 19, Kruszewski posted a public apology to Facebook for his actions during the initial campaign, in which he took responsibility for the violation and absolved Dunbar and their campaign team of any guilt in the situation.

“Our mission and platform address real issues on campus from sexual assault and mental health to diversity and inclusion and everything in between, and it pains me that my personal actions may have impacted our ability to make those real, positive changes for the betterment of student life here at ND that so many of you voted for, and I apologize for any harm my text may have caused,” Kruszewski said in his apology.

No additional sanctions were issued between the announcement of the first round of results and the runoff debate, which took place Feb. 22.

The second forfeiture of votes

The morning after the debate and the day of the runoff election, Feb. 23, Judicial Council released a press release announcing a sanction against the McGavick-Gayheart ticket, requiring it to forfeit 12 percent of its votes.

According to the release, McGavick and Gayheart were “found to have supporters releasing confidential information from previous Judicial Council allegation hearings, as well as engaging in a continued pattern of unethical behavior,” which violated Judicial Council’s Election Regulations and Sections 13.4(e), 17.1(g) and 17.1(h) of the Student Union Constitution.

While no one involved in the situation would speak on the record about the specifics of the allegations and hearing, the press release said the aspect of the Election Regulations the ticket violated mandates that candidates are “responsible for [their] actions as well as the actions of [their] supporters.”

As to the other violations the ticket committed, the press release said Section 13.4(e) of the Student Union Constitution states that, aside from information included in Judicial Council press releases, “all other information pertaining to hearings and appeals shall be considered confidential,” and Section 17.1(g) reads, “Candidates may not be involved in or instruct others to engage in any unethical behavior as detailed in 17.1(h).” The final section Judicial Council found the ticket to have violated, Section 17.1(h), states that “Candidates are expected to behave ethically at all times.”

While he would not elaborate on the nature of the allegations, McGavick said he felt confident that he and Gayheart could present a strong enough case to the student senate upon appeal for the group to overturn the ticket’s 12 percent deduction of votes.

This final decision, the 12 percent sanction we got, we don’t feel that was a fair penalty at all, and we had a very long counter-argument to back that up with multiple witnesses, multiple phone calls, multiple screenshots,” McGavick said. “Just frankly, I am almost certain that if we had gotten to present to the senate, that we would have gotten our penalty greatly removed or drastically, drastically reduced.”

The ticket did not get to hear its appeal, however, as the student senate once again did not meet quorum and could not hear the appeal. As a result, the 12 percent forfeiture of votes stood.

Junior and current student government chief of staff Prathm Juneja said he remained confident in the commitment of the senators in spite of the two unheard appeals.

“I would hate to say — and I hate for people to assume, rather — that senators didn’t show up because they were frustrated,” he said. “I’m not saying that about every senator — there might have been some, but I believe in the strength and the dedication of the senators, many of whom had legitimate excuses for [senior and student body vice president Sibonay Shewit].”

While McGavick said he understands that scheduling conflicts may play a role in whether or not senators are unable to show up to unexpected hearings, he believes the constitution needs to be revised in order to ensure appeals are heard in the future.

I understand people have commitments, the meeting was held on Saturday — that’s tough, but at the same time, if our system gives that level of power to the senate, where that’s our only real means of appealing a punishment we feel we have evidence to effectively disprove, that’s a problem,” McGavick said.

Shewit said the areas of the constitution that determine the proper procedure for senate appeals are among the current student government administration’s top priorities in terms of revising the Student Union Constitution throughout the rest of their time in office.

“Overall, that section of the constitution is somewhat vague, and a lot of it is left up to interpretation,” she said. “And in those cases, we tend to rely on precedents, but we’re now starting to wonder if we should be putting in set rules.”

Ross said this change is something he expects Judicial Council and the student senate to discuss in the coming weeks.

Obviously, the senate — we try as hard as we can to get quorum if an appeal is filed, and I know from Judicial Council, from my perspective, there is certainly a lot of work I want to do looking at the appeals section of the constitution over the next few weeks that we still have in office,” Ross said. “That’s certainly something that I’ve talked to a few people about, and it’s definitely a place where we think we can improve the constitution and make it more effective.”

Although McGavick and Gayheart were unable to present an appeal, however, Ross said the Election Committee did its best to ensure the 12 percent vote deduction was as fair as possible, not only to the ticket, but also to voters.

“I think the way that we do it in that it’s a forfeiture for percentage of votes — it’s not, you know, I’m not coming up to you and saying, ‘Your vote didn’t count,’ right?” Ross said. “So that is kind of our way making sure we’re not feeling we’re disenfranchising voters, in that it is truly a sanction on the ticket rather than something that the campus or, you know, voters must really bear.

Juneja also posed the question of feasibility, noting that there are not many options available to the Election Committee in determining an appropriate punishment for a ticket on such short notice.

“If you guys follow me outside of student government, you know I care a lot about voter enfranchisement,” Juneja said. “That’s the thing I work on, and I love voting and I think it’s really important, but what is the alternative punishment? What is the alternative if there is an allegation the night before that someone is found guilty?”

Due to the requirement that everyone involved in a Judicial Council hearing keep any information from the hearing private, McGavick and Gayheart were unable to offer any clarification about the allegations to voters. Gayheart said this encouraged antagonistic behavior from students not involved with the campaign.

“There was one instance where I was followed around in the dining hall with someone holding up The Observer with the 12 percent article,” he said. “I was literally going table to table in the dining hall reminding people to vote, and I was literally being followed around by someone holding up the 12 percent article saying we were unethical.”

Many of the confidentiality requirements in the Student Union Constitution are intended to protect the anonymity of anyone who comes forward with an allegation. While Juneja said this will most likely not change due to the value of anonymity throughout these processes, he is open to seeing the rest of the hearing and appeal system become more transparent.

“I think there’s something to be said that there could be some more transparency on the allegation process,” he said. “In terms of instead of just listing the rule, we could maybe get more information there and it’s a conversation we’ll have in senate, but for us, I think the anonymity of persons, whether it’s in closed senate meetings or in hearings like this, we care about our students more than anything else and if they’re vulnerable, we will protect them.”

As someone who has been through the process of bringing forth an allegation, Brickner said he understands and agrees with the anonymity requirement, despite the fact that he was comfortable sharing his experience.

“I don’t care if people know I filed the allegations, but I’m sure in different scenarios, the person may be afraid of getting targeted back or, for whatever other personal reasons, don’t want their secrecy unveiled,” Brickner said. “It’s definitely great they have this premium, this focus on secrecy. But I’m just like a different breed, and I couldn’t care less. The allegations I sent had a personal text message, so he’s going to know either I sent it in or somebody I sent the text to sent it in.”

Still, Brickner said, he would like to see the option for people who bring forth allegations to choose whether or not to be anonymous.

“I think I should have had the right, though, to waive my anonymity,” Brickner said. “In the way that it is, they’re getting sanctioned for unethical behavior, but if no one knows what the unethical behavior is, and if they can’t make their own independent decision on whether it was unethical or not, it’s almost like a moot point. I’m a very big fan of giving everybody the information.”

The runoff results and aftermath

Despite the 12 percent decrease in the number of votes they received, McGavick and Gayheart discovered they won the election Feb. 25, receiving 52.08 percent of valid votes cast in the election after the sanction was applied.

Had neither ticket received 50 percent of the votes or more, the election would have proceeded to an electoral college-style system, in which votes would be broken down by hall and each hall’s vote would count toward one ticket or the other.

After the number of allegation hearings and appeals — attempted or otherwise — he and McGavick went through, Gayheart said the two had an increased appreciation for what it took to make it through the election and the job for which they were elected.

“Honestly, it made this process like an episode of ‘House of Cards,’” Gayheart said. “ … There were a couple of times when it was like, ‘Is this even worth it?’ Gates and I had a lot of heart to hearts about this, and especially when we were locked up in rooms on the second or third floor of [LaFortune Student Center] waiting for hearings. It really tested us in terms of what we were willing to go through to still be on the ballot.”

The voter turnout in the runoff election was 47 percent of students, something Gannon said was most likely a result of voter fatigue after a long election process.

“That’s another indicator, I think, of how crappy this election season was,” Gannon said. “Because people just don’t want to vote when they see all the crap flying around. After that, I think the statistic was that [the turnout] was 11 percent down from last year’s election.”

Gayheart echoed Gannon’s sentiment and said he didn’t want this year’s election process to turn into the standard at the University.

“That’s not what Notre Dame is and that’s not what it should be, but unfortunately, this election brought out the worst in people, and it definitely showed,” Gayheart said. “I think one of the direct ramifications of that was 47 percent voter turnout, down 11 percent [from last year’s election].”

Senior and student body president Becca Blais said it was “disheartening to see” the election take a negative turn.

“There’s been a fundamental shift both in the country and on this campus as negativity being a tying factor,” Blais said. “You saw it in the national election, you see it happening all the time and I think in many ways, it just happened on this campus as well. … I think those six allegation hearings and five rounds of sanctions were a product of the hate and negativity.”

Having been through a student body election campaign before, Shewit said she was surprised to see the extent of the bad feelings in this election.

“It wasn’t the norm to go through this process. It was very much kind of a last effort, I guess,” Shewit said. “You really thought for a long time about whether you wanted to put yourself through an allegation hearing and then if you want to put yourself through an appeals hearing, and I don’t know why, but this year I think that it was approached more as the standard way to go exactly. … It’s really hard to look at this and not feel a little disappointed.”

Juneja said the allegations and resulting sanctions were the “product of a toxic nature of an election and building a campaign season on disdain” for the current student government administration.

“I want to emphasize, our frustration isn’t with the work of student government, the nature of student government or anything,” he said. “It’s not even with the legitimate criticisms we had of student government. There is a legitimate criticism that if the senate doesn’t hit quorum, that just expires. That’s something we want to have a conversation about. I think that’s a legitimate criticism … but when we have to defend things we aren’t even responsible for or aren’t even true, I think that really hits us in an unfair way.”

McGavick, however, said he feels that criticisms of student government processes weren’t the source of negativity in this election.

“There are a lot of people who definitely think it was us that set the tone with this election — and I feel bad because there’s a level of passion and commitment to their work which is really incredibly impressive — but as a result, fair criticisms of student government are construed as personal attacks, which they’re not,” McGavick said. “ … There can’t be a stigma about criticizing your elected officials, because while this is a student government, it is a government system, and if we don’t feel like our representatives are doing a good job, and if there is criticism against us, we will never respond badly to fair criticisms of our policies and administrations, because we are elected officials, and we have to be accountable.”

McGavick and Gayheart, along with others involved in the election and members of the student senate, have already begun to look for ways to improve the system for future elections.

“What we’re getting at is the constitution was almost weaponized against us. And the fact that a constitution is able to do that is, first and foremost, a major problem,” Gayheart said. “I think a solution to this is, one, and I think we are going to — I mean, I know Matt Ross has already asked all tickets and all parties, ‘What are some election reforms we can work on? Because there are clearly flaws in the system.’ … We aren’t in office yet, but I think one of our big tasks ahead that we weren’t planning on is going over the constitution with a fine-tooth comb, especially the election section.”

McGavick said his one regret from the election was whatever role he may have played in how bitter the process became.

“Look, I think any time, like how nasty this election was, I think you regret being a part of it in a sense,” he said. “ … I regret that people got so tired of this election in the end, because of how nasty it was. I regret these things being construed as personal attacks, because that was not my intention. When I say that student government needs to change, I’m not saying these are bad people who aren’t doing their jobs, I’m saying that we need to reorient the policy, and I regret that that got lost in translation.”

Brickner said he hopes, moving forward, students keep in mind that some of the consequences of the process go beyond the results of a student government election.

“I think the takeaway is you’ve got to keep everything in scope here,” he said. “You’re running for student body president, which I still don’t think has that much power. Just keeping that in mind, don’t start playing dirty, don’t start bringing people into it that don’t deserve to be brought into it. Keep in mind that some of these allegations you file have very real consequences on people’s lives going forward.”

For Ross, as well as the current and future leadership of student government, the next steps require significant reform to the Student Union Constitution.

Every year, we go back and look at the constitution and figure out if there’s things we want to change,” Ross said. “This time we do.”

Senior News Writer Ben Padanilam, Managing Editor Katie Galioto, Assistant Managing Editor Rachel O’Grady, Associate News Editor Lucas Masin-Moyer, News Editor Natalie Weber and News Writers Elizabeth Greason and Tobias Hoonhout contributed to this report.

Dominique DeMoe | The Observer
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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a senior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, and currently serving as Editor-in-Chief. She is a former resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Contact Courtney