April 30, 2021

BUONANNO | Yet Another Student Election Marred By Disenfranchisement

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Cornell University’s student government is in crisis. And this week’s University elections website failure can only make things worse.

Voting for Student Assembly, Student-Elected Trustee and class council positions began on Tuesday. But as students presumably rushed to the virtual polls, Cornell’s servers were overrun, and voting halted for a little over 24 hours. And, as a result, students will be able to cast ballots until 5:00 p.m. on Friday evening. 

For those who follow Cornell student government, and particularly the S.A., you are undoubtedly aware of the political and hate-filled warfare which has plagued the institution over the past few years. Most notably, you’ll likely remember the brutal S.A debate over a resolution calling for the disarmament of the Cornell University Police Department which resulted in conservative student groups launching targeted attacks against students of color. This debate even gained national media attention by conservative political figures such as former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R-WI). 

As The Sun’s associate editor at the time, I found myself at the center of the local media coverage of the conflict. And, through the editorial mistakes our team made, I learned one thing for certain: The activists who have sat on the S.A. in years past, and Cornell as a whole, deserve to see the realization of their desire for a fully progressive-leaning body. It is, undoubtedly, the only way forward considering the concerning and violent behavior by their right-leaning and even centrist counter-parts.  

But I’m concerned about the results of this election. While I don’t mean to belittle the campaigns of students who do not fall on the progressive ticket, it is fairly apparent to me that any result other than a progressive sweep ought to be understood in the context of immense, albeit accidental, voter suppression.

During my four years here at Cornell, a major issue has arised in every election. And, in nearly all of these cases, students of color got the short end of the stick.

In 2018, a candidate for S.A. president was disqualified after a supporter of his posted a meme which violated University campaign guidelines. This candidate’s appeal was denied, but that decision was later overturned after a Judicial Codes Counselor noted several instances of bias that influenced the decision. 

In 2019, a Black student was disqualified in the Trustee race after a Cornell University official encouraged student-athletes to support him in an email. Had he not been disqualified, statistics show that he would have won the election. Despite opposition to this disqualification from most students on campus, President Martha E. Pollack and the chair of the Board of Trustees, the University allowed this disqualification to stand. Eventually, though, the candidate was granted an at-large Trustee position. 

Lastly, in 2020, ranked choice voting system difficulties plagued the S.A. race. Students were disenfranchised at large after the system disqualified over a thousand ballots which didn’t rank every candidate on the ballot. Although these elections were closed and then reopened to allow for time to inform students about the logistics of the voting system, the University lost a lot of student trust in the process. And, even in this election, the University is still relying on this ranked-choice system which doesn’t allow for students to cast votes of no confidence in certain candidates (for instance, you must rank all three S.A. presidential candidates on your ballot). 

Frankly, it makes sense that students — particularly marginalized students who have had real, traumatizing voting experiences outside of Cornell — have lost faith in our University’s ability to manage and regulate our elections. And the statistics reflect this. Last fall only, 16.85 percent of eligible students voted in the S.A. election. 

This week just may be the straw that broke the camel’s back. When the University fails to efficiently run an election countless student voters are disenfranchised. There are students who likely chose not to vote as a result of this technical glitch. There are students who will likely choose never to vote in a Cornell election again as a result of this week. 

We are a University that has produced dozens of senators and congress-people, countless governors and state officials, several heads of states, and one of the most important Supreme Court Justices in U.S. history. It baffles me that we consistently make mistakes like this. It demonstrates that we do not fully understand the importance of student elections as an educational tool to help students gain confidence in democracy. 

I hope I’m wrong, but I guess we will have to wait and see. For now, I encourage you all to vote before the deadline. Know that your voice does matter, even if it doesn’t seem that way. And help realize the Progressive dream on campus that many of your peers have been fighting for.

Peter Buonanno is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at pbuonanno@cornellsun.com. His column, The Wyckoff Club, runs alternate Fridays this semester.