Students’ Association (SA) elections happen twice a year— once in the spring and once in the fall. They are exciting times, at least for us journalists, filled with heated races, lively debates and high spirits. The current election has been no exception to this trend; the field of candidates has been vibrant, and we’ve enjoyed watching the campaigns play out and following the narratives of our peers.
In the process of interviewing the presidential and vice presidential candidates for our endorsement, our conversations with both teams reflected this trend. Each set of candidates was strong and brimming with enthusiasm. And, while they represented opposing camps, both platforms came to the table with a desire to change the system—to change the culture of SA—and to spark a new wave of engagement between SA and the student body.
In a similar vein, we’ve been thinking about some ways that SA can improve as it looks to the future, specifically when it comes to elections.
To get a feel of how feasible our ideas were, we got in touch with senior SA leadership. After our conversations, it became apparent that some of our ideas, while good-intentioned, would not pan out. Seeing that this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates were scarcely attended, we thought that it would be a good idea to hold more debates during campaign weeks. But, we came to realize that this would be logistically difficult. Furthermore, we thought that it might be beneficial to hold separate presidential and vice presidential debates, based on the fact that, during this year’s debate, it seemed like one candidate would speak for and over their running mate. But, again, we found that this idea was misguided. Besides stretching candidates too thin in an already incredibly busy time, having separate debates would deprive voters of seeing how the candidates work together as teams. In this way, having combined debates is the better option—it allows students to see the dynamic between potential presidents and vice presidents, which should be an important factor when deciding who to cast a vote for.
However, one idea we had seems like a realistic possibility: recording the debates as well as the weekly SA Senate meetings. When considering that accessibility is one of the chief reasons why many students don’t take a more active role in student government, recording or streaming these proceedings and making them available to the student body would be a huge step forward in bridging the gap between students and their government. Students who are unable to make the debate would be able to better inform themselves as voters; likewise, students who can’t make Senate meetings would still be able to see the proceedings of their representatives. This initiative would also increase accountability and transparency in our student government and allow students to see that their interests are being represented far beyond the limitations of condensed minutes and agendas. Current SA President Antoinette Esce, whom we spoke to, said that plans for this would be included in the transition package for the incoming SA government.
Another area of concern that we have regarding elections is the campaign rules. This campaign season has been relatively low on violations; however, there was one major dispute. A presidential candidate filed a formal complaint against his opponent, alleging that the individual in question had broken a rule specifying that candidates cannot campaign before 12:01 a.m. on Monday, March 30. The reasoning behind this claim was that the accused candidate’s website appeared to have endorsements on it at its launch time at 12:01 a.m. The petitioner took this to imply that the accused had campaigned prior to the specified time in order to collect endorsements. The Senate Elections Committee deliberated on the complaint and decided to dismiss it.
We understand the complexity of the situation. The evidence provided in the complaint was shaky. Precedent in situations like this dictated that a certain amount of leeway in the campaigning start rule was necessary in presidential level campaigns. And, crucially, there was a fundamental difference in how each candidate had interpreted the campaign rules as they are published on SA’s website. To paraphrase the committee chair, Paul Jaquish, the committee felt that the candidate who filed the complaint had drawn the line of acceptability exactly between what he had done and what his opponent had done. To the committee, this was too specific to be comfortable with.
When asked, Jaquish agreed that there is a discrepancy between the rules and their implementation. He also mentioned that the specifics of this campaign rule, as explained in the Policies and Procedures Manual for the Elections Committee, state that campaigning is “public activity,” and this distinction was not present on the SA website. This is where we think there can be improvement moving forward.
After our conversation, we concluded that the primary issue here was not with how strictly or loosely rules were enforced, but that the rules themselves were not clear enough to avoid a dispute. If the publicized rule about when campaigning is allowed had noted that it was referring to public activity, as opposed to all activity, perhaps this dispute wouldn’t have occurred and the complaint would not have been filed in the first place. Because of this, we urge SA to review how it engages with potential candidates and voters.
Clarity is the key to transparency, and in order to have the most transparent and fair campaigns as possible, the rules governing them need to be clear. Jaquish acknowledged this, and he seemed determined to make sure that problems like this one are avoided in the future.
When formal complaints are dismissed, petitioners are able to appeal decisions through the All Campus Judicial Council (ACJC). If an appeal is accepted by the ACJC and the circumstances are deemed severe enough, the council has the power to call for an entirely new election. With this information in mind, we’d like to see the role of the ACJC—not only in elections, but in general student life—be more publicized. Most students don’t even know that the ACJC is SA’s judicial branch. We feel that many students aren’t very familiar with this branch of SA, and given the fact that it plays a crucial role in the inner workings of our government, we think that SA should make more of an effort to promote it.
Based on our conversations with SA, we have hope that, in future years, many of the issues with SA’s election processes—and SA in general—will be addressed. But, we still feel that SA needs to push itself to find innovative and outside-of-the-box solutions to the issues that it faces. The world is adapting, and we think that SA needs to do the same. With this in mind, SA should keep up with the times and modernize its methods of engaging with its constituents. We trust that these changes will be considered and implemented, and that by this time next year, the election we’ll be following will be much more efficient.