Lack of transparency from Elections Commission endangers spring ballot

By Zac Bears

Candidates speak at last year's SGA president, vice president and University student trustee debate. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
Candidates speak at last year’s SGA president, vice president and University student trustee debate. (Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

After the election debacle last spring in which the candidates receiving the most votes were disqualified on various technicalities, students met last fall to discuss reforming the Student Government Association’s election bylaws. I attended a few of the early meetings before it became clear that this election reform group did not envision a fundamental restructuring of how student elections work at the University of Massachusetts.

Transparency has been a buzzword in student government for the past year, from a new shared governance agreement between the administration, the SGA and the Graduate Student Senate, to disqualified presidential vote-winner Ellie Miske in last year’s spring election debate, in which she argued for more transparency behind student fee changes and how the University plans to maintain the tuition and fee freeze. Presidential and vice presidential candidates Charlotte Kelly and Sammi Gay include a version of Miske’s proposal in their platform.

But the election reform process last fall did not succeed, and the SGA Elections Commission still fails basic obligations, such as adequate publicity of the campaign schedule and, as of Monday at 6 p.m., no confirmation of the locations for this Tuesday’s trustee debate or Thursday’s presidential and vice presidential debate.

Election reform weighed heavily on the minds of SGA officers at the beginning of the year. The SGA had just emerged from one of its most controversial elections ever, throwing out over 1,300 student votes due to travesties like the use of a coupon to print campaign posters, the potential use of a personal printer and campaigning in dormitories without a proper escort. The Elections Commission still counts those invalidated votes in voter turnout statistics.

Last October, Anthony Rentsch interviewed Senate Speaker Sionan Barrett and Administrative Affairs Committee Chair Kabir Thatte about the groundwork laid in early election reform meetings. Both were hopeful that the SGA Senate would enact sweeping changes to election bylaws by the end of the semester. Thatte endorsed a proposal that would move away from apportionment of senate seats by residential area.

But few members of the Administrative Affairs committee attended the public election reform meetings, according to regular members of the group, and by the time the committee had drafted its reforms, many of the group’s proposals had been eliminated or altered significantly.

In place of changes that would have made the senate more representative, the Administrative Affairs committee sponsored motions that alter the relationship between the Elections Commission and GSS, force elections commissioners to be confirmed by the committee before a vote of the senate and split the presidential and vice presidential campaigns from that of the University student trustee. Splitting the tickets, according to Thatte, precludes a presidential or vice presidential candidate from supporting or endorsing a trustee candidate on any platform, including social media. All of these motions passed and took effect this spring.

A measure that institutes campaign finance filing 10 days before campaigning starts and allows candidates to use vendors other than Campus Design and Copy takes effect in spring 2016.

Some of the reforms may make problems worse this cycle. Instead of attempting to make election bylaws less restrictive, the Elections Commission seems to be doubling down on heavy enforcement of arcane election bylaws and minor changes instituted last fall.

The splitting of candidates for president and vice president from the student trustee creates a slew of issues. Divya Kirti, chancellor of the Elections Commission, has said in multiple emails to the candidates and other interested parties that she and the rest of the commission are still grappling with the specifics of the new rules a week into campaigning and only a week before voting starts.

Commissioners are currently debating what differentiates a voter from a campaign worker because splitting the tickets means supporters cannot work for both a presidential campaign and a trustee campaign. Many supporters are concerned about voicing support for a trustee candidate while working for a presidential campaign and vice versa, fearing they will injure both causes.

Last fall, now-presidential candidate Barrett pinned low voter turnout on the fact that “not a lot of people know that elections are going on or … do not understand what SGA does.”

In the same piece, now-trustee candidate Thatte said, “The SGA has to figure out why students don’t become involved.”

Not having a location until the day of the debate may be the answer.

Zac Bears is the Opinion & Editorial Editor and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @zac_bears.