Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

The election between JT Baker '21 and Jaewon Sim '21 for student-elected trustee is just one of several examples of controversial student elections at Cornell in the past few years.

October 5, 2020

For Cornell’s Student-Held Elections, Problems Are Not New

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At around 2 p.m.Thursday, right when voting was supposed to close, the directors of elections suspended Student Assembly presidential elections due to last-minute problems with the online voting system.

From faulty electronic vote counting to problematic memes, 2020 is not the first year that elections for student-run positions have faced obstacles. Here is the recent history with election tribulations at Cornell:

2018: A close meme disqualification

The 2018 S.A. election between Dale Barbaria ’19 and Varun Devatha ’19 came down to the wire, but it almost ended with a disqualification.

Initially, the elections committee announced Barbaria the victor, but it was later announced that his victory was by default. The S.A. elections committee had disqualified Devatha for a meme posted by one of his supporters in the “Cornell: Any Person, Any Meme” Facebook group.

The meme had a number of items, listing their cost, concluding that “Vesting in Varun” was “Priceless.” Problems arose with the meme because it had a Cornell logo on it, which the committee said violated campaign rules regarding promotional materials. In a six-to-one vote with one abstention, the committee voted to disqualify Devatha.

Devatha appealed the decision, which the committee denied. But a report by judicial codes counselor Kendall Karr J.D. ’18 reversed the decision, citing four separate instances of bias in the decision.

Once Devatha was reinstated, the voting showed that the formerly-disqualified candidate had won by 48 votes, making Devatha S.A. president. Barbaria took the position of undesignated representative at-large.

2019: Counting issues and another overturned disqualification

Although for a different position, a similar story with campaign rules and disqualifications happened the following year, this time in the race for student trustee.

Initially, Jaewon Sim ’21 was declared the winner, but the next day the Trustee Nominating Committee said that it was in part because JT Baker ’21 was disqualified. The controversy was over an email sent by a Cornell Athletics official to student athletes to support Baker, who is on the football team.

The email did not specifically endorse Baker, but the committee still found its wording “altered the fairness of the election.”

JT Baker, a member of the football team, is running for Student Elected Trustee,” the email read. “He would be the first ever student athlete in this critical leadership position.”

“This election for the Student-Elected Trustee position is incredibly important and we encourage you all to vote, please spread the word!” the email continued.

Many students opposed the decision, including many of Baker’s teammates. President Martha E. Pollack and Board of Trustees Chair Robert Harrison ’76 also did not agree with the decision, although they said that they will let the committee stand by the disqualification.

Statistics released about the election stated that Baker would have won if not for the disqualification. Ultimately, Sim remained in the position of student-elected trustee, while Baker was given a spot as a trustee at-large.

2020: COVID-19 and issues with rank-choice voting

The S.A. presidential election for the 2020 to 2021 school year has been delayed twice, once by four days and another by six months.

These S.A. elections were supposed to happen last March, but Cornell shut down just before the voting process was set to begin. Given the chaos surrounding the mounting pandemic at the time, the three presidential candidates — Cat Huang ’21, Uche Chukwukere ’21 and Dillon Anadkat ’21 — led a movement to pause all S.A. campaigning and only resume in the fall semester.

The three candidates  came back for another run this semester, re-debating and virtually campaigning until Oct. 1, when the voting period was originally set to end. But only one day before elections were supposed to end, the directors of elections — Moriah Adeghe ’21 and Savanna Lim ’21 — found that only ranked ballots would be counted, potentially leaving out over a thousand votes from students who left their ballots unranked.

The Office of Assemblies, which manages elections, uses a ranked-choice voting system, a tabulation method in which students rank candidates in order of preference, for S.A. presidential elections. Typically, the candidate with the most first preference votes wins, but if there’s no clear majority, then the candidate with the least number of votes is successively eliminated until there is a winner. According to Gina Giambattista, the director of the Office Assemblies, this method has been used for at least seven years.

But the issue of unranked ballots wasn’t new: past elections had many invalid ballots cast because of the software the Office of Assemblies uses to tabulate votes. The 2019 S.A. presidential race had 1,435 uncounted ballots, while the executive vice presidential race that same year had 1,761 invalid ballots.

Controversy over the unranked ballot raised questions on the election’s fairness and legitimacy, so Adeghe and Lim, along with Giambattista, made the decision to pause voting for the presidential race and “destroy” all of the votes casted from the original voting period. The elections committee decided to restart voting Oct. 2 at noon and end Oct. 5 at noon.

“We feel that this is the best way to proceed with an honest election since there is no way to include the invalid ballots that have already been cast in the final vote count,” Adeghe and Lim wrote in an email to the Cornell community.

Since voting restarted, emails encouraging Cornellians to revote now have disclaimers in bold and all caps, reminding students to rank their ballots in order for them to be counted. Before this controversy, there were no disclaimers on ranked voting for S.A. elections in voting emails.

Even though voting ended Monday at noon, no results for the S.A. presidential election have been announced yet.