A former member of the committee that disqualified Varun Devatha ’19 from the Student Assembly presidential race said on Monday that he had resigned from the body because its members had worked to “rig” the election in favor of Devatha’s opponent.
The explosive claim, which other members of the Student Assembly Elections Committee strongly denied, comes as the group prepares to announce on Tuesday or Wednesday whether Devatha or Dale Barbaria ’19 will assume the S.A. presidency.
The committee will first review a report from the judicial codes counselor who is evaluating Devatha’s claim that the committee was biased in its decision to disqualify him. The Sun revealed on Monday that the committee disqualified Devatha based on a meme posted by one of his supporters.
Austin McLaughlin ’18, who led the elections committee in spring 2017, resigned as a voting member late last month. He claimed in a letter to the editor on Monday and in subsequent interviews that committee members had improperly failed to recuse themselves from deliberations last month and, in one instance, “doctored” a vote count to indicate that members had recused themselves when they actually had not.
He said that at least three voting members should have recused themselves from the March 28 vote to expel Devatha, which would not have changed the majority opinion, but may have resulted in the committee not being able to achieve a quorum.
“The committee, rather than the meme, compromised the fairness of the election,” McLaughlin wrote, calling the deliberations “biased.”
Travis Cabbell ’18, the current director of elections and chair of the committee, categorically denied McLaughlin’s claims, saying that all members who needed to recuse themselves did so. He said no reports were illegitimately altered.
“I 100 percent stand by every decision that has been made by this elections committee,” Cabbell said in an interview. “Every decision that has been made has been thought out and taken hours of deliberation.”
The judicial codes counselor, Kendall Karr, a Cornell Law student, over the weekend sent a report evaluating Devatha’s claims of bias to the committee, which will review the report on Tuesday. Karr said her report is detailed and includes an analysis of which entity has the final authority to overturn the disqualification, but she declined to further discuss the contents of her report.
After reviewing Karr’s report, the committee is expected to issue a final decision on Devatha’s disqualification and announce the winner of the election on Tuesday evening or on Wednesday.
If Devatha’s disqualification is upheld, Barbaria will win by default and it may never be known who received the most votes. If Devatha is reinstated, then the winner will be determined based on who received more votes.
Devatha and Barbaria both declined to comment on Monday night.
The spilling of the elections committee dispute into the public sphere follows the revelation on Monday that the committee had disqualified Devatha from the race, after voting concluded, based on a meme posted by one of his supporters. The meme was posted in a popular Facebook group with thousands of student members and it included two Cornell logos, which the committee ruled were in violation of election rules, according to a copy of a confidential committee document obtained by The Sun.
McLaughlin claimed that committee members failed to follow a section of the election rules regarding recusals. The section, which McLaughlin co-authored in 2016, requires any committee member who serves on an executive board to recuse themselves from a challenge involving a candidate endorsed by their organization.
Of 10 voting members on the committee, three sit on the executive board of at least one organization that endorsed Barbaria. Cabbell, who does not vote, also serves as the interim executive director of the Cornell Lending Library, which endorsed Barbaria.
McLaughlin believes that those three voting members must recuse themselves from any challenges involving Barbaria or Devatha. He said they should not have taken part in the vote to disqualify Devatha, which ended in a six to one decision in favor of ejecting Devatha from the race, with one person abstaining.
Cabbell’s interpretation of the rule, however, according to internal documents, is that the members only need to recuse themselves from hearings of challenges against Barbaria.
Cabbell declined to discuss specific deliberations, citing a confidentiality agreement that he said McLaughlin was violating, but Cabbell noted that he is the final interpreter of the rules because he is the head of the committee.
“Any former [director of elections] or any former elections committee member may have an opinion, but at the end of the day, that final interpretation lies with the current elections committee,” Cabbell said. “In regards to the way the rule is written and the way the elections committee interpreted it, … all the members that needed to recuse themselves did.”
Several members of the committee, including Cabbell, are on the executive board of the Lending Library, an organization that endorsed Barbaria and was formerly run by Barbaria’s campaign manager, Jaelle Sanon ’19.
“If that doesn’t indicate a conflict of interest, then I don’t know what does,” McLaughlin said.
During a hearing in which Barbaria was accused by a student of violating election rules by having a Cornell logo on his website — an incident that has not been previously reported — the three members with conflicts did not recuse themselves, McLaughlin claimed.
McLaughlin said that the committee’s final report on the matter — which cleared Barbaria in a five to zero vote, with one abstaining and three recused — was doctored to indicate that the three members had recused themselves when they had actually participated in the deliberations and voted. Cabbell and other committee members denied this, saying that the three members had recused themselves.
That final report, obtained by The Sun, indicates that Clady Corona ’19 and Terrill Malone ’21, who are on the Lending Library executive board, as well as Lucy Lin ’20 — who sits on the executive board of the Cornell Asian Pacific Islander Student Union, which endorsed Barbaria — recused themselves.
Malone said in a letter to the editor on Monday night that the elections committee members had held themselves “to the highest standards of ethics and equality” and that they “have faced harsh public scrutiny that has made some kind individuals have to stress about one more unnecessary thing.”
Corona emphasized in an email that she had followed the election rules regarding recusals and that she did not participate in the Lending Library’s endorsement of Barbaria. Lin said on Tuesday that she had abstained from voting in CAPSU’s endorsement of Barbaria.
“I can say with confidence that we did not go into deliberations with any presidential candidate preferences,” Lin said. “All discussions were solely based on the facts we had.”
Cabbell said he stood by all of the committee’s reports and that McLaughlin “never once” voiced a concern that members were violating the rules until he resigned from the committee.
Cabbell also noted that he and the other committee members on the Lending Library board — Corona and Malone — did not participate in the organization’s decision to endorse Barbaria.
“If you have a conflict of interest, you’re automatically not part of the process” of selecting who the organization endorses, said Sanon, the former executive director.
In an interview on Monday night, TJ Ball ’19, a Student Assembly member, lamented that the lengthy slog of a complex election process would create an “uphill battle” for whoever assumes the presidency.
The situation “has not helped the mindset of either Varun or Dale coming into the presidency — that there’s been so much speculation around the outcome due to the election committee’s reviewing of the rules and the challenges,” said Ball, who has endorsed Barbaria.
“The biggest takeaway is that it’s going to be hard for whoever ends up winning and becomes president to get the amount of respect on campus that they deserve,” Ball said.
Yuichiro Kakutani ’19 contributed reporting to this article.