A committee is expected to make a final decision in the next two days on whether a Cornell student kicked out of the Student Assembly presidential race — because of a meme posted by one of his supporters — should be reinstated, a ruling that could bring an end to a wild election marred and delayed by procedural questions.
The Student Assembly Elections Committee disqualified Varun Devatha ’19 from the race on March 28, hours after online voting ended, because of a meme that the committee said violated election rules, according to two people familiar with the matter who insisted on anonymity and internal elections committee documents obtained by The Sun.
The meme in question was posted in the Facebook group, “Cornell: Any Person, Any Meme,” by Rachel Wells ’18, a supporter of Devatha’s campaign who could not be reached for comment late on Sunday night. The meme group is popular among students and boasts a membership of more than 27,000 users, a fact cited by the student who reported the now-deleted meme to the elections committee.
The final results of all S.A. races remain withheld as Devatha’s appeal continues. If Devatha’s disqualification is upheld, then Dale Barbaria ’19, the only other person running for the presidency, will assume the position as head of the student government body.
Barbaria and Devatha both declined to comment on Sunday night on the previously undisclosed revelation that a meme was at the center of Devatha’s disqualification.
“I can’t comment on whether or not [Devatha] should be disqualified for that action,” Barbaria said. “It’s not my place as a candidate, and especially as the candidate running against him.”
“I think it’d be inappropriate for me to comment at this time,” Devatha said in a text message.
The meme said “STEAL HIS LOOK!” and included a series of items and their costs next to a picture of Devatha and a note that said supporting Devatha is “priceless.”
Also included in the meme were the logos of the School of Hotel Administration and the Hans Bethe House, which are the sources of the dispute, according to a copy of the challenge submitted to the elections committee and obtained by The Sun.
The student committee ruled by a vote of six to one, with one abstention, that Devatha violated a section of the Student Assembly election rules that appears to deal with posters and quarter-cards, according to a copy of the committee’s decision, which is marked confidential.
The document sheds no light on the committee’s deliberations, and it is unclear under what rationale committee members applied a rule forbidding Cornell insignia on posters to a meme posted online by a supporter. A majority of committee members seem to have interpreted the section heading, Promotional Materials, broadly to apply to any physical or digital materials used by the candidate.
“The candidate had promotional materials that included the ‘Cornell insignia or logo’ which is not allowed,” reads the decision, submitted by Travis Cabbell ’18, the elections committee chair.
Committee members considered written testimony from both the challenger and Devatha and determined that the violation “did compromise the fairness of the election to the extent the challenged candidate should be disqualified by two-thirds majority of the committee,” according to the decision.
Devatha petitioned the committee to reverse its decision, which was denied, The Sun previously reported, and Devatha then appealed to the judicial codes counselor, Kendall Karr, a Cornell Law student, claiming that the committee was biased in its application of the rules.
Karr told The Sun on Sunday that she had made a decision on whether the committee had unfairly applied the rules and submitted her ruling to the Office of the Assemblies on Saturday evening, but she did not disclose her determination to The Sun.
The elections committee’s decision could be reversed if Karr finds that the committee’s application of the rules was biased, but it is unclear who has the final say. Cabbell, the committee chair, acknowledged that these are uncharted waters for the committee but claimed the group has the power to make a final determination on whether Devatha should be expelled from the race.
“I’m still working out and planning out the whole process, … but the elections committee does have final say, that is the truth,” he said late on Sunday night.
The election rules say that if the judicial codes counselor “finds that the application of the rules was biased, the decision of the Elections Committee may be overturned,” although it does not clearly indicate if Karr or the committee has the power to overturn the decision.
Cabbell said the ambiguous language of the rules underscores the need to reform the process.
“This is the first time this has happened, and that’s why moving forward, the elections committee needs to redo the rules,” Cabbell said.
The elections committee will meet on Tuesday and release its final ruling — and announce the winner — later that day or on Wednesday morning, Cabbell said.
If Devatha is reinstated, the vote totals will be released at that time. If he is disqualified, Barbaria will win by default and it may never be known who received the most votes, as the vote tally for a disqualified candidate is not released.
Devatha’s controversial disqualification has prompted several S.A. Executive Committee members to support electoral reforms, including the current president, Jung Won Kim ’18.
“Amending the elections rules is something we will definitely consider,” Kim told The Sun.
Jaewon Sim ’21, S.A. vice president for external affairs, noted that the S.A. had lacked the time, in the fall, to “complete a comprehensive review of the election rules” because other issues took precedence. He said he hopes to reform the election rules over the next academic year to make the process “more transparent and egalitarian.”
Sim added that while the delay of the election results until after Spring Break is “disappointing,” he defended it as necessary to “the integrity and fairness of the elections process.”
Olivia Corn ’19, incumbent S.A. arts and science representative running for reelection, disagreed.
“I think it’s a little ridiculous,” she said. “They should release all of the results that have been finalized. There absolutely need to be reforms and, in the future, elections should be further away from Spring Break in order to avoid waiting for results over spring break.”