In a letter to the editor, the Student Assembly directors of elections, Moriah Adeghe ’21 and Savanna Lim ’21, explained how voter disenfranchisement has plagued yet another round of elections. Ranked-choice voting is the culprit. While this system solves the need for runoffs and purportedly selects candidates with the broadest and deepest support, it has also allowed the Office of the Assemblies to throw out perfectly valid ballots. In past elections, this method of counting ballots has discounted over 25 percent of the ballots, including 1,435 ballots in the Spring 2019 S.A. president election and 1,761 ballots in the Spring 2019 executive vice president election.
While the widespread invalidation of ballots that aren’t completed is not new, the knowledge that the Office of the Assemblies counts ballots in this way is not widely known. This led to the abrupt suspension of the president and undergraduate representative races on Friday, Oct. 2 and a re-run election with a deadline of noon on Monday, Oct. 5. Good. This is the bare minimum for the Office of the Assemblies to qualify as accountable. The directions on ranked choice voting weren’t clear or obvious in either of the emails containing the ballot or the ballot itself; in a screenshot provided by the directors of elections, it was in fact the opposite of obvious that voters needed to fill out the entire ballot. Thus, it’s likely that a high number of ballots will be thrown out again, strengthening the argument that on-campus elections at Cornell are simply a farce of democracy. Most of the candidates in the election didn’t know about these rules, either, and they were left to inform supporters on their own in the eleventh hour, hardly a model of a fair and open election.
Yet, there was no meaningful change that was made: The Office of the Assemblies simply made it clearer that they would not count votes that did not rank all the candidates. This was neither the outcome the directors of elections wanted nor the outcome that Avery Bower ’23, candidate for the undergraduate representative to the University Assembly, wanted. And this is because requiring students to cast a ballot for every single candidate is an unnecessary burden and undemocratic: It doesn’t provide an option for an abstention or a vote of no confidence in a candidate. That’s an important detail, as there are certainly candidates on the ballot in any given election who could actively detract from the S.A. In a national election, the current ranked-choice voting system would have all of us voting for Vermin Supreme as the fifth place candidate.
There’s no intrinsic reason why we need to rank all the candidates for the election to be properly and fairly counted, but there are reasons that the Office of the Assemblies’ actions in setting up the election and responding to the concerns of S.A. should be criticized. Disregarding ballots with a rationale that’s not entirely transparent to the student body harkens back to the strategy of voter disenfranchisement in darker, earlier parts of U.S. history when voters of color had their ballots invalidated for reasons that were not transparent. Disregarding ballots also ties into unfair electoral procedures for the November 2020 elections amidst COVID-19, with limited ballot drop-off locations and inane absentee ballot requirements. Although all of the S.A. elections are important, this election is especially so, given the amount of conversation that the S.A. and its members have engendered over the last few months.
For example, the Student Activities Funding Commission, which is part of the S.A., was accused of irresponsibly spending their funds by donating $10,000 to Cornell Students for Black Lives. The S.A. has been involved in many debates over the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and Zionism more generally. Finally, the S.A. was indicted for bullying tactics among its members, speaking to a toxic culture. It goes without saying that this election is a referendum on what Cornell students want in an organization that governs our student contributions and other pieces of the campus political puzzle — all with the added lens of COVID-19.
If you care about national elections, you should care about the down-ballot ones — especially the most down-ballot of elections. This election has the ability to cause hell for us this year or the ability to make our existence just a little better. The S.A. should not be decided on the whim of an office that has shown its decisions to be undemocratic and opaque. Vote and pressure the S.A. and Office of Assemblies to not allow another election like this one.
Darren Chang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Swamp Snorkeling runs alternate Thursday’s this semester.