Fate of UMass SGA online voting referendum now in the hands of Student Judiciary
The second referendum question in the fall 2009 Student Government Association election regarding moving voting online has generated more questions than answers so far. After an undoubtedly contentious history, the SGA finds itself again debating whether or not to throw out its most recent push for election reform, with the Student Judiciary poised to possibly rule against online voting’s newest incarnation.
After an attempt at enacting online voting as a senate measure last spring failed, SGA Commuter senator Derek Khanna turned towards what became referendum question two in this year’s fall elections, which supported changing a current “antiquated” paper ballot system to support online voting.
The Daily Collegian reported in early October that the wording of the original petition signed by students supporting differed slightly from that on the question two ballot question seen by voters on election day. This discrepancy in the text was enough to lead to the Coordinating Council to decline to ratify question two when it ratified the rest of the election results on Oct. 6. However, the SGA ultimately passed a separate version of the online voting measure in late October, along with an addendum produced by senator Khanna.
Many in the SGA took issue with the addendum, which they allege will make major changes to the SGA – without what they consider the normal course of debate for such actions. Senators Andy Berg, Azeen Khanmalek, Rudy Mahotiere and Melissa Urban filed an official petition for the Student Judiciary, chaired by Robert Weed, to hold a hearing on the addendum and its possible unconstitutionality.
“Several senators in the SGA have serious concerns with what was passed,” said Khanmalek, one of the petitioners for the judicial hearing. “Our disagreement has nothing to do with the idea of supporting or not supporting online voting; we simply want to address what we believe is manipulation in the passage of the question. The only form of restitution is to disqualify question two, and sit back down to decide legitimately how to hold online elections.”
The Student Judiciary began its hearing on the matter on Sunday, Nov. 15, and after a six-hour session, the meeting was adjourned until Wednesday night. A ruling is expected to be released in the upcoming weeks.
“My concern is primarily that the addendum will modify significantly the way the SGA functions, without this being in the referendum question itself,” said Berg. “For one, it deregulates campaign finance reform, opening the door for people to come in and spend personal fortunes to ensure election. Had that, or the other parts of the addendum, been clear, there would have been a significant chance that the referendum would not have passed.”
Khanna disagreed with the idea that the addendum fell out the range of the short question regarding online voting originally asked of students on their ballots this fall, noting that moving to an online environment requires making some adjustments to the by-laws. While admitting that subjective decisions were made in that process, Khanna insists that he has worked with the SGA processes in place, and made sure that UMass and the Elections Commission signed off on the addendum and said it was valid.
“I find the motion to the judiciary to be unproductive,” said Khanna. “If the petitioners have legitimate problems with the by-law changes, they can sponsor a motion to change the bylaws themselves, and they should do so at any time. I have worked with Brandon Tower on some suggestions to make this a better bill. We owe to UMass an online voting system and direct districts – this year, not in 2011 … Between the confusion of the old Vice Chancellor [of Student Affairs], and the new Vice Chancellor [Jean Kim], online voting went through the cracks. When finally we presented our signatures to Kim, she said that the SGA must have online elections, but that she was not prepared to change the by-laws.”
Many in the SGA seemed upset that the addendum was not made fully available after it was received by the Elections Commission in early September. According to Student Judiciary documents obtained by the Daily Collegian, Chancellor of Elections Chris Faulkner admitted to being unable to find the official copy of the document for senators, and most did not see a copy until it was distributed on Oct. 22 via e-mail. Faulkner could not be reached for comment in time for press.
“The referendum asked voters if they agreed to implement an online voting system and the direct districts proposal,” said Urban. “In the addendum, they got not only those changes, but campaign finance deregulation, the elimination of appointed seats, and many other amendments that were not listed in referendum two. The most shocking part is that the addendum Word document’s metadata proves it was saved only minutes before it was sent out to senators on Oct. 22.”
“The SGA has been set back in its effort to pursue online elections by forcing us to reverse this attempt at reform before we can move forward,” said SGA President Ngozi Mbauwike. “We are fighting to push this back so that we can do it the way it really needs to be done.”
“Nearly every school in the country has online voting, except for ours,” said Khanna. “There is a large amount of politics behind this, as senators of the incumbent party believe that they won’t be able to swarm the ballot locations and convince students to vote for them that way, instead of through logic and deeds.”
Many SGA senators also voiced dismay at the addendum’s removal of ALANA caucus seats from the by-laws, without this subject having been mentioned in the ballot question this fall.
“It does not eliminate the caucus seats,” said Khanna, in response. “It defines the term ‘senator’ to not include them since they are appointments, and they have been deemed illegal. In addition, the Vice Chancellor said that by March 1, 2010 the seats had to be removed. The General Counsel of UMass has said they were illegal and unconstitutional. I didn’t recognize them because I couldn’t. But the provisions for them still exist, and are still on the books. It will be up to the SGA to decide how to deal with this system.”
Nick Bush can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.