April 10, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Former S.A. director of elections: Why I resigned after the Devatha decision

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To the Editor:

Last year, I served as the director of elections, a position responsible for coordinating Student Assembly elections and running the independent Elections Committee. This year, I resigned from the committee after witnessing its biased deliberations and abuse of power while addressing challenges to the candidacy of Dale Barbaria ’19 and Varun Devatha ’19.

I believe that the committee members failed to act as independent arbiters in disqualifying presidential candidate Devatha, acting behind closed doors to rig a race that should be determined by students. The committee ultimately doctored a vote count, terminating Devatha’s candidacy and de facto choosing the next S.A. president.

As The Sun reported, Devatha was disqualified for a meme in a 6-1-1 vote, followed by a 2-8-1 vote failing to overturn the disqualification the next day. This ruling was controversial itself, but the committee’s discussion was also tainted by its members’ bias. At least four of the 11 Elections Committee members sit on the executive boards of organizations that endorsed Devatha’s competitor, Dale Barbaria ’19. Three of these four, including the current Director of Elections, are on an executive board headed by Barbaria’s campaign manager.

These members are allowed to sit on executive boards that endorse candidates, but they are required by Election Rules to recuse themselves from deliberations about these candidates. However, during discussion of challenges to Barbaria and Devatha alike, these four committee members attended the meeting, participated and voted. The committee, rather than the meme, compromised the fairness of the election.

I, among others, told the director of elections after these deliberations that committee members had violated the rules by failing to recuse. However, rather than acting to amend this overstep, the committee revised its story. They claimed that these four members actually had recused themselves during the discussion. They even doctored a vote to reflect the new number of members they say were in attendance.

I was at Barbaria and Devatha’s hearings. To say the members recused themselves is a blatant mistruth, disguised under the pretense of confidentiality. When I first became the director of elections, I was assured that the integrity and independence of the Elections Committee was paramount. I now believe that those values have been violated.

The mismanagement of Devatha’s disqualification has two important consequences. First, the committee violated its own mission — to impartially oversee undergraduate elections — a key component of shared governance. Second, by enforcing a strict policy of confidentiality, the Elections Committee is able to operate behind closed doors without oversight or accountability.

What institutions are in place when the Elections Committee acts against its prescribed duties?

Devatha is currently appealing his disqualification to the Judicial Codes Counselor, a first for any student campaign at Cornell. Whatever result the counselor determines will be without precedent because no mechanism currently exists to check the Elections Committee.

As a recent Sun editorial argued, transparency is already minimal in Student Assembly elections. The egregious behavior of the Elections Committee only deepens the divide between the student body and the Student Assembly.

Most importantly, the Elections Committee’s intervention nullifies the thousands of ballots that students cast.

Devatha should be released of the Elections Committee’s disqualification. Students should choose their Assembly president, not an unelected committee behind closed doors.

Austin McLaughlin ’18
former director of elections, Student Assembly (Spring 2017)