Annie Wang / Sun File Photo

The S.A. election has been thrown into confusion over a election rule that may have invalidated some ballots.

October 1, 2020

S.A. Voting Rule Raises Concerns Over Uncounted Ballots

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Just a day before Student Assembly elections are set to end, last-minute confusion over election procedure has prompted concerns that voters may have unknowingly cast an invalid ballot.

In what they said was a surprise revelation, S.A. presidential candidates executive vice president Cat Huang ’21, undesignated representative at-large Uche Chukwukere ’21 and Dillon Anadkat ’21 said they learned on Wednesday from the Office of the Assemblies — which provides support for Cornell’s elected bodies — that rules for tabulating votes may disqualify the ballots of some voters: If an individual leaves just one candidate in a race unranked, their ballot for that specific race will be discarded.

For races with more than two contestants, the S.A. ballot has traditionally used ranked-choice voting, a tabulation method in which a voter ranks candidates in order of preference. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, they are automatically declared the winner; if none do so, the candidate with the next fewest number of first-preference votes is successively eliminated until a winner emerges.

However, under the policy, if a voter fails to rank all candidates running in that race, their vote will not count — a departure from how most ranked-choice systems are typically implemented.

“Personally, I didn’t know that you were required or forced to rank all of the candidates [until now]. In the past, I’ve had a lot of friends who voted in past elections that didn’t rank [all candidates],” Huang said Wednesday night. “You could vote, you could rank, but you didn’t have to.”

Despite the voting period nearing its end, the three candidates said it was not until Wednesday that S.A. members were notified this policy had been put into place for this semester’s election.

“Today at noon … [we] got a message from the Director of Elections that basically said that they have received news from the Office of the Assemblies … that explained the way voting is supposed to be happening is that you’re supposed to rank all three candidates for a position,” Huang said. “And if you don’t do that, your vote for that position will not be counted.”

Tabulation and vote-counting of S.A. elections are managed by Cornell’s Office of the Assemblies, which is led by Director Gina Giambattista; she could not be reached for comment by time of publication. According to Huang, the two co-directors of the S.A.’s election committee — Moriah Adeghe ’21 and Savanna Lim ’21 — reached out to Giambattista on Wednesday to ask for clarification about the ranked-choice voting system.

The instructions listed on the S.A. ballot sent by email to all Cornell undergraduates are ambiguous as to whether one is required to rank all candidates.

While the instructions ask voters to “rank all options in your order of preference,” it goes on to clarify that if one chooses not to include a given candidate, that means “you would rather have your vote not count than have it count for that candidate.” Nowhere does it explicitly say that failure to include all candidates will result in an invalid ballot.

However, on Wednesday night, Cornell students were sent an email from the S.A. Elections Committee reminding students to vote in S.A. elections. In it, the message explicitly stated, in bold, that voters must “rank all candidates in the ‘Ranked Choice’ races in order for your vote to count.” According to Huang and Chukwukere, this is the first time such language had been used in communications to undergraduate voters.

A previous email sent to students on Tuesday simply asked voters to rank “your candidates for all races.” Unlike the latest message, it did not specify that the consequence for not doing so would be a cancellation of one’s vote.

The election rule prompted backlash from the S.A.’s three presidential candidates, all of whom expressed sharp criticism of the policy.

“I just think it’s undemocratic,” Anadkat said. “You can’t force people to rank candidates when they have no desire to do so. Students have been denied the right to choose their representatives.”

Huang and Chukwukere both said that they would support a re-vote in the event that the policy is not reversed.

“All of the votes should be tabulated,” Chukwukere said.