Do we have a winner?
That depends on whom you ask.
The Student Assembly Elections Committee on Wednesday night upheld its disqualification of one S.A. presidential candidate over a meme and declared another student the winner. But a report claiming that the committee’s decision is “invalid” and should be overturned has left Cornell students with no clear answer and the assembly in disarray.
Wednesday night’s turbulence was just the latest in a messy election season that has drawn claims of bias and near-universal calls for reform, but the uncertainty also has the potential to send the assembly into a tailspin as there is no clear mechanism to reconcile a disagreement between the elections committee and the judicial codes counselor over who has final authority.
The committee, led by non-voting chair Travis Cabbell ’18, said it had ruled correctly last month to disqualify Varun Devatha ’19 from the race based on a meme posted by one of his supporters, who may also have been a member of his campaign. The committee declared Dale Barbaria ’19, the only other candidate, the next S.A. president and said the vote totals would not be released.
Later on Wednesday night, though, the judicial codes counselor, Kendall Karr, law ’18, shared a report with The Sun in which she wrote that the committee had applied the rules in “a biased and unfair manner” and pointed to four specific instances in which she said the committee acted with bias. The report (embedded at the bottom of this article), which the committee reviewed before upholding its disqualification, also claimed that Karr, as the JCC, has the final say on the disqualification.
“The S.A. Elections Committee’s actions this evening were not within its authority,” Karr told The Sun in a fiery statement. “Their actions are invalid and against the very basic tenets of ethics.”
“The committee’s actions this evening call into question the validity of shared governance at Cornell,” Karr said. “The Judicial Codes Counselor was the ultimate appellate body in this election and my decision has been blatantly disregarded.”
If Karr’s report was heeded, Devatha would be reinstated and the winner would be determined based on the student vote totals.
In an interview, Cabbell noted that this is the first time “in the history of the Student Assembly” that a disqualified candidate has appealed to the judicial codes counselor, and he stood by the committee’s analysis that it has the power to make a final decision and that Karr’s report is purely advisory.
“It is not in her power to interpret the rules to say that she has final power,” Cabbell said. “As it has been interpreted by the elections committee, this power remains with the body.”
The situation on Thursday morning, in which two entities have come to opposite conclusions about Devatha’s disqualification and each believes it has final authority, had some current S.A. members concerned about what will happen next.
Reached on Wednesday night, Barbaria and Devatha both declined to comment. Both have served on S.A. for years and have approved the election rules multiple times, as most recently as December.
Jung Won Kim ’18, the current S.A. president, told The Sun that he believes the elections committee has final authority, but said Karr’s report should be given due weight, a sentiment he had also shared with the committee before its ruling. It is unclear if S.A. plans to take any action on the matter, but it is scheduled to discuss the election at its 4:45 p.m. meeting on Thursday in Willard Straight Hall.
“If it is true that the JCC [Karr] recommended that the committee reverse its decision and outlined the reasons why, then that’s also something that should be taken seriously by the elections committee,” Kim said.
Student voting ended on March 28, and the committee voted to disqualify Devatha hours later based on a student’s challenge regarding the meme, setting off a two-week saga that extended through Spring Break.
Posted in a popular Facebook group called “Cornell: Any Person, Any Meme,” the meme encouraged students to vote for Devatha and included a Cornell School of Hotel Administration logo, which the committee said violated election rules forbidding the use of the Cornell logo on promotional posters. The Facebook group has more than 27,000 members and more than 80 people reacted to the meme before it was taken down, including Devatha.
The elections committee upheld its disqualification on March 29, leading Devatha to appeal to the judicial codes counselor and spurring one former committee member, Austin McLaughlin ’18, to quit in frustration, claiming publicly that the body had tried to “rig” the election, which other members denied.
The delay in releasing the results has taken a toll on all involved. While the elections committee appeals continued, vote totals for all races up and down the S.A. ballot were withheld from the public and the candidates themselves until Wednesday night. Elections committee members have privately aired frustrations about confidential documents being leaked to The Sun and the public criticism the group and both candidates have faced online.
“Throughout all of our discussions, the current members of the Elections Committee have had no knowledge of the results of the election,” the nine voting members of the committee said in a letter following their decision on Wednesday.
“Every current committee member has acted with integrity and interpreted the rules to the best of their ability,” the members said.
‘NONSENSICAL AND SUPERFLUOUS’
Karr and the elections committee both believe that a passage of the election rules gives them the authority to make the final decision. The passage reads: “If a disqualified candidate finds that the Elections Committee was biased in their application of the rules, they may request a review by the Judicial Codes Counselor (JCC). If the JCC review finds that the application of the rules was biased, the decision of the Elections Committee may be overturned.”
The rules, Karr wrote, “are poorly written and create many instances of ambiguity” but, “given that the Judicial Codes Counselor review is to serve as a safeguard against procedural bias, regarding the review as simply a recommendation to the body that rendered the biased decision would not be an intuitive reading of the sentence.”
Karr wrote in her report that “it would be nonsensical and superfluous to have the Judicial Codes Counselor review the Committee’s conduct for bias, find bias, and ask the biased body to reverse itself.”
Cabbell said that based on the elections committee understanding of the rules, the body’s decision on Wednesday night “is final.”
“There are no other stated methods to further this process,” he said. “This process is uncharted.”
Karr alleged in her seven-page report that she found four instances of bias in the committee’s actions that would each be enough, on its own, to overturn the body’s decision.
In the report, Karr claims the committee acted with bias when:
- Members who were required to recuse themselves did not
- The committee improperly broadened the scope of a reconsideration hearing after its initial report
- Committee members voted without being present for portions of testimony and deliberations
- The committee did not produce “a minimally acceptable report,” hindering Devatha’s ability to appeal and Karr’s own ability to review its actions.
Three voting members of the committee sit on the executive boards of organizations that endorsed Barbaria, which Karr said should have led them to recuse themselves during the challenge to Devatha. McLaughlin also claimed that this was unfair when he resigned from the group in frustration.
Cabbell previously told The Sun that all members had recused themselves when necessary and all three voting members who sit on an executive board that endorsed a candidate said they had not taken part in their boards’ votes.
Karr’s report also says that when the committee denied Devatha’s appeal of its initial ruling, it improperly cited a broader rule than during its initial disqualification.
In the initial disqualification, according to confidential documents obtained by The Sun, the committee cited a rule forbidding Cornell insignia on posters or quarter-cards. But when Devatha appealed, the committee cited the broader Promotional Materials section.
A member of the elections committee, Noah Chovanec ’18, said on Wednesday night that the original citation “was made in error” and that the challenge “was in reality always meant to be referencing” the broader rule. Chovanec, speaking on behalf of the committee, said that the error had been pointed out and clarified to Devatha.
In materials Devatha submitted to the Office of the Assemblies for Karr’s review, he said that many elections committee members at the appeal hearing “were not present for discussion but were still asked to vote” on his appeal. McLaughlin, who said he was present for the deliberations, agreed with Devatha’s statement.
Cabbell told The Sun that Karr “never once” contacted the committee to hear its side or reasoning for her report and that she “overstepped bounds to weigh in on matters that are not even applicable.”
Karr said she communicated only with the Office of the Assemblies to maintain her impartiality and that the committee’s opportunity to explain its reasoning is in its reports. Devatha submitted exhibits to the office, which provided them to Karr.
“The committee’s failure to submit proper reports is part of its biased application of the rules,” she wrote, adding that the committee report disqualifying Devatha was five sentences long and was “too vague to comply with the totality of the procedural rights provided to Devatha.”
Student Assembly member TJ Ball ’19 said the lack of clarity regarding the election results is bad for the student body.
“The fact that the elections committee and the JCC are disagreeing over this is definitely not sending a positive message in terms of the effectiveness and clarity of student governance at Cornell,” said Ball, who endorsed Barbaria. “The fact that this is uncharted waters makes this even more of a tense situation.”
Informed of the meme-centered dispute, Svante Myrick ’09, the mayor of Ithaca, joked in a text to The Sun: “This is why I never participated.”
Barbaria, endorsed by the First Generation Student Union, Cornell Democrats and several other organizations, campaigned on a platform of bringing greater transparency to the S.A. and working to increase outreach and make students more aware of the assembly’s work.
In addition to his experience as the vice president of internal operations, Barbaria also served as the parliamentarian, vice president for internal operations and member of the University Assembly Codes and Judicial Committee.
Endorsed by the International Student Union, Cornell Union for Disability Awareness, Cornell Mainland Chinese Student Association and at least five other organizations, Devatha promised free Netflix service, improved campus safety and a more transparent S.A.
Prior to serving as executive vice president, Devatha served as undesignated representative at-large on the S.A. during the 2016-17 academic year and as freshmen representative during the preceding year.