March 30, 2018

EDITORIAL | It’s Time to Reform Student Assembly Elections

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Forty-eight hours after polls closed in this year’s Student Assembly elections, the student body is no closer to knowing just who will represent them for the next twelve months. And now, The Sun has learned that results may not be public until as late as after Spring Break.

The reason for this extended protraction is a challenge to the campaign of presidential candidate Varun Devatha ’19. Devatha was disqualified from the election late Wednesday for using a Cornell University logo in campaign materials, a violation of Article I, Section B, Rule 5 of the Student Assembly Election Rules, but has since appealed his disqualification.

The letter of the rules is clear: the use of the logo is prohibited. It is, in fact, so important to the elections committee that it is stated twice. If Devatha did indeed use the logo as is alleged, he is in violation. But whatever the outcome of his final appeal, the entire episode raises serious questions about the S.A. elections process.

Under the current rules, there is no method of reprimand other than an effective death sentence for a campaign. This all-or-nothing approach can produce an incredibly undemocratic result, by which the will of the voters can be overturned by an unelected committee operating in a confidential setting. Last semester, a candidate for freshman representative received enough votes to be seated, but was disqualified for reasons the elections committee refused to disclose.

Although any member of the Cornell community may request a review of settled challenges, photographs, copies and transcriptions are prohibited, and the review must be held in-person at Day Hall, rendering any “accessibility” virtually moot. It is similarly egregious that the final reports on challenges — the rationale for disqualifications — are kept totally confidential. Decisions of such import should be made in the open, not behind closed doors.

While we do not know (and may never know) whether Devatha or his opponent, Dale Barbaria ’19, received the most votes, the possibility that a misused logo could invalidate the choice of thousands of students is deeply disturbing.

Ex post facto disqualifications are undemocratic and should be eliminated. To avoid this situation in the future, the Student Assembly should consider instituting a campaign blackout period before polls open, as many countries across the world do. This period of enforced silence  — perhaps 48 hours — in which candidates and their supporters could not actively campaign, would allow the elections committee to review any challenges and publicly announce any disqualifications before voting commences, thus preventing students from wasting their votes.

The fate of Devatha’s campaign is in the hands of the elections committee now. Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, we have seen how clearly flawed the current system is, and whomever sits on the assembly in the coming year should take action to correct those flaws. While not a cure-all, a campaign blackout period would be a good place to start.