Empty seats and the paradox of SGA accessibility

By Nathan Frontiero

An SGA general body meeting. (Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)
An SGA senate meeting. (Christina Yacono/Daily Collegian)

You can find the full version, “Empty Seats and the Paradox of Accessibility” from which this column was excerpted and edited on the author’s WordPress blog.

There is an abysmal level of transparency between the Student Government Association and the University of Massachusetts student body. That problem became a critical point of concern in this year’s presidential and vice presidential elections.

Voting took place through the Campus Pulse website from March 10 to 12. After several hours of vote counting, the Elections Commission released its elections report through the SGA’s Facebook page. The report revealed Sïonan Barrett and Chantal Lima Barbosa as the unofficial victors by a margin of four votes.

Something is amiss. The runner-up Kelly/Gay ticket received 1,369 votes. The Barrett/Barbosa ticket received 1,370 votes with three additional “votes with write-ins.” I find this bizarre. None of the other tickets – with the exception of the Van Leuvan Smith/Coakley ticket, which was a write-in ticket – received any of these extra “written-in” votes.

Why would the Barrett/Barbosa ticket be allowed write-in votes if it was already on the ballot? Perhaps this is just another part of the eccentric modus operandi for SGA elections. Regardless, my greater concern is how Barrett and Lima Barbosa achieved their statistically microscopic victory over Charlotte Kelly and Sammi Gay. Their campaign’s Facebook page sheds light on the matter.

On March 11 – the second day of voting – Barrett/Barbosa announced that they were opting out of that evening’s debate in favor of “knocking on doors and engaging with students and sharing their platform face to face.” Excuse my rather literal interpretation, but that reads as, “Knocking on doors and soliciting votes.” Now, I was unable to attend the debate because I was studying for an exam, but I would have attended as a constituent of the student body that these potential leaders must protect. Their decision to skip the debate in favor of canvassing is profoundly arrogant.

Conor Snell, web managing editor for DailyCollegian.com, confirmed to me that the site garners an “average daily unique visitor count” which is “about equal to the total amount of students that voted in this SGA election,” which is, according to the elections report, 3,423 students. Even if Barrett and Lima Barbosa were able to reach hundreds of students in 90 minutes (the approximate runtime of the debate they skipped), their reach still pales in comparison to the traffic that the paper’s report undoubtedly gained the next morning.

The Collegian is, as noted on its online and printed masthead, “a free and independent press.” The outreach it lends is unsolicited and accessible to all students with Internet access, which the University provides for all on-campus residents.

Barrett and Lima Barbosa threw away their chance to reach thousands of students through the Collegian’s coverage. And they seem to have unknowingly indicted themselves. The ticket posted pictures of what amounts to evidence of vote solicitation. One such picture featured one of the candidates standing with a student on his phone in Berkshire Dining Commons and was tagged, “How’s this for accessibility?”

But that’s not making your platform accessible – that’s shoving your platform in the face of whatever student you convince to listen to you.

And what student wouldn’t vote for a charismatic candidate who presents an in-the-moment reasonable platform? Saying “yes” would diffuse that moment less awkwardly than refusing would. Judging by the outcome of the election, the approach worked. I just don’t understand how it was allowed.

Wind the clocks back a year. The winning Devenney/Miske/Cook ticket of the 2014 SGA spring elections, when student trustee and president/vice president candidates could campaign together, was invalidated. Why? The Elections Commission reasoned the candidates’ use of a 10 percent off coupon from Campus Design and Copy allowed them to print an extra quantity of campaign fliers that exactly matched the number of votes by which they won the election.

In a hearing with the SGA Judiciary, the Commission used these egregiously speculative mathematics in its argument and the invalidation was allowed to stand. I sat in on that hearing and the absurdity of its result so infuriated me that I wrote my first op-ed for the Collegian.

The DMC invalidation debacle creates a striking irony with the Barrett/Barbosa victory. Last year, the victorious ticket and the voices of every student who voted for it were all invalidated because the Commission convinced the Judiciary that some extra fliers around campus possessed the extrasensory powers necessary to make a barely correlated number of students vote for Ellie Miske, Gabrielle Cook and Emily Devenney.

This year, Barrett and Lima Barbosa scoffed at the opportunity to discuss their ideas with the other candidates in a well-reported forum and instead stormed the dorms and dining commons necessary to reach a crowd that they could persuade to vote. While Kelly and Gay were vocalizing their ideas for improving UMass from within the SGA, Barrett and Lima Barbosa were cheerleading for voters.

Let’s compare the social media campaigns of the winning ticket and runner-up. At the time of this writing, Kelly Gay for SGA had 651 likes on Facebook; Barrett and Barbosa for SGA had 391. Kelly Gay for SGA’s Twitter account sent 169 tweets, followed 915 users and gained 110 followers; Barrett/Barbosa for SGA’s has sent 47 tweets, followed 170 users and has 30 followers.

This data suggests that Kelly and Gay ran a more involved and more consistent social media campaign than Barrett and Lima Barbosa did. It also calls back to the larger problem with which I introduced this column: transparency between the SGA and students.

Kelly and Gay transparently communicated a nuanced platform. Throughout their campaign, they posted key points to convey a clear sense of what they would do if elected. If you want more details on how they seek to enact these changes, you can visit their campaign’s Weebly site, which describes the entire platform on a scrolling page that took me roughly 20 minutes to read.

Barrett and Lima Barbosa include their platform on the About section of their campaign’s Facebook page, which will take you at most two minutes to read. If you want specificity on par with the Kelly/Gay platform, you won’t find it. You will, however, discover Barrett/Barbosa’s hopes to create a “Central UMass Amherst App,” which looks like it would combine various preexisting apps and online services and attribute all credit to the president/vice president’s benevolent leadership.

The problem here is not concision. There isn’t an unnecessary word in Kelly and Gay’s platform – it’s just that there are more than cursory details. Compare the two tickets side by side and you’ll see the Kelly/Gay platform comes with a more nuanced version of almost everything Barrett/Barbosa has to offer, plus a lot more for no extra charge.

Kelly and Gay have a comprehensive plan “to make sure that UMass Amherst is the most accessible place for all students, regardless of age, race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etc.,” according to Kelly. It’s unfortunate they weren’t planning on developing an unnecessary app, but I can let that slide.

I look at the elections report and worry because I simply don’t know what the barely victorious Barrett and Lima Barbosa are going to do if these results get ratified. I do not know if they will fight to protect the University’s lifeblood – its students – in the way that I know that Kelly and Gay will.

I would ask president-elect Barrett what she’s going to do when she takes office but after the election results came out, she unfriended me on Facebook and made her Twitter account private. I guess not voting for her means that I deserve to be silenced and out of the loop. Or maybe that’s just how elected representatives are supposed to treat their constituents. Perhaps I’m behind the times.

At least I might see her “on TV one day delivering your daily dose of news.” A student government presidency ought to add some nice padding to a resume.

Now how’s that for accessibility?

Nathan Frontiero is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]