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Observer Editorial: Take the next step

| Monday, March 5, 2018

Just 10 days ago, 3,592 students cast non-abstention votes in the student body presidential runoff election.

More than 400 of those votes did not count.

Both tickets on the runoff ballot faced significant sanctions of vote forfeitures, with the McGavick-Gayheart ticket forfeiting 12 percent of its votes and the Kruszewski-Dunbar ticket losing 10 percent.

In a long and tumultuous election, this large-scale forfeiture of votes was perhaps the fact that got the most attention across campus and left the most people wondering: “What just happened?”

But it’s just one of many aspects of this election that were obscured from students.

The reason for this lack of clarity can ultimately be traced back to one document: the Student Union Constitution.

The constitution is a 45-page document that covers a wide range of topics pertaining to student government. Yet in this unprecedented election — with five instances of sanctions and four appeals filed, the details of which can be found in today’s cover story — it became clear that the constitution could not appropriately address the problems that arose, even as the student government officials involved did their best to navigate the uncharted territory.

“We always say that during election season, we really see the flaws in the constitution — and this one more than many,” Judicial Council president and senior Matt Ross said. “There’s certainly a lot of flaws that we are going to address.”

The flaws the constitution needs to address once the election cycles ends include measures to avoid potential voter disenfranchisement, the lack of information made available to voters and the equitability of senate appeals.

When it comes to voter disenfranchisement in this year’s election, the forfeiture of votes appears to be a result of the actions of candidates and their supporters. Both tickets and their supporters broke the Student Union Constitution’s rules, and Judicial Council enacted punishments in response. Yet at the same time, it seems unfair that 402 voters in this year’s election were silenced for actions in which they shared no responsibility.

To the Election Committee’s credit, it has chosen to take away a percentage of votes rather than a specific number, meaning the number of votes rendered invalid would be determined by voter turnout, out of consideration for what’s fairest to voters. Additionally, the timeline of the allegations which resulted in forfeitures — both of which were filed the day of the elections — limited the options Judicial Council had to punish the tickets for their misconduct.

Still, there’s no doubt a more equitable solution needs to be found.

In a system meant to be democratic, there’s no reason constituents should see their votes — and, by proxy, their voices — lost.

Perhaps a solution can be found by addressing one of the constitution’s other flaws: the lack of information regarding the allegations that result in these sanctions.

Section 13.5(e) of the constitution states that all information about hearings and appeals that Judicial Council doesn’t make available through press releases is considered confidential. These press releases are often vague and unclear.

Ross told The Observer that the reason for the vagueness of these press releases is to protect the anonymity of any party who files to ensure no one is dissuaded from alleging in the future. This reasoning is understandable.

However, with each new allegation filed, more questions arose, more rumors were spread and more confusion was created.

Students were left to cast their votes only knowing that a ticket would have to forfeit votes for unethical behavior. Voters were then forced to speculate what “unethical behavior” might mean before they cast their vote. How can any voter make an informed decision regarding who one wants to represent the student body when they are not given the facts of the hearings and appeals meetings?

If the decision to sanction votes is rooted in a desire to punish the candidates for violating the constitution, why not let the voters speak for themselves? Voters should be trusted to make their own decisions about who they want representing them, especially in an election where both tickets faced such hefty sanctions that there was talk of pushing the election to an electoral college process.

This Editorial Board understands why anonymity with the appeals process is underscored so heavily, but we also believe it is in the best interest for students on campus if more detailed information relating to allegations is made publicly available.

We know this is an issue Judicial Council recognizes and has had conversations about before and since the end of this most recent election. Ross told The Observer that Judicial Council is considering ways to make the system more transparent. We hope those continued conversations will result in a solution that constitutionally brings more transparency to the process.

The lack of transparency is not only an issue for election allegations, however. The appeal process also revealed its flaws during this election. Senators were tested with four appeals, but two of them were never heard because the group failed to meet quorum, the minimum number of present voting members required to hold a meeting. In the student senate’s case, this requires 2/3 of the voting members to be present.

The constitution created a situation in which one ticket was able to have its appeal of the vote forfeiture heard, while the other ticket was not. It created an imbalance, as one ticket received due process, while the other did not.

When double-digit percentages of votes are at stake, either party’s appeal going unheard is unacceptable. The current leaders of student government do seem to plan to address the issue as best as they can, as Ross said considerations include releasing roll call for every senate meeting to hold senators more accountable or evaluating and correcting ways in which the appeal process itself is unfair to tickets.

Anything short of finding a way to ensure a constitutional guarantee for appeals to be heard when votes are at stake would be a failure. As students, this Editorial Board would rather sacrifice the efficiency of the 48-hour mandate for appeals to be heard than have our votes potentially taken out from the final tallies without an appeal being heard. And we firmly believe that many students who take the time to vote on election day would feel the same way.

With the end of this most recent election comes the opportunity to learn from the past and correct these flaws for the future. As the newest leaders of student government prepare to take office and Judicial Council begins its yearly evaluation of the constitution with the help of senate, we hope that this opportunity is taken advantage of.

This election was a difficult one for all the parties involved. And it was a difficult one for all of the students tasked with casting a vote, too. The current and future leadership all appear to recognize this, and that’s encouraging.

But now it’s time for them to take the next step and prevent this election from becoming the norm.

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