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UCourt partially invalidates elections

By Yasna Haghdoost     2/25/14 2:41pm

The Student Association Election Committee will rerun the General Elections and merge them with the previously scheduled SA Internal Vice President Elections running through Feb. 28 at 11:59 p.m. after the University Court found the 2014 SA General Elections partially invalid in a public hearing, according to a letter sent by University Court Chair Evan Austin on Feb. 23. 

The Student Association Election Committee will rerun the General Elections and merge them with the previously scheduled SA Internal Vice President Elections running through Feb. 28 at 11:59 p.m. after the University Court found the 2014 SA General Elections partially invalid in a public hearing, according to a letter sent by University Court Chair Evan Austin on Feb. 23. 

Public Hearing 

The public hearing was held in response to a petition led by Lovett College Senator Christian Neal and Jones College Senator Clinton Willbanks that contested the results of the election. The petitioners’ four complaints were: the casting of ballots by ineligible netIDs, the exclusion of Martel College senior Denis Leahy from the ballot, alleged closed door meetings held by the Election Committee discussing the election issues, and alleged collaboration between the SA Executive Committee and the Election Committee. 

Regarding the first complaint, the Court agreed that voting by alumni was a violation. 

“Members … agreed that the confirmed participation of alumni and a graduate student constituted a violation of the constitutional requirement that only members of the Student Association as certified by the most recent class rolls of the Registrar shall be able to vote,” the Court abstract read. 

The Court also acknowledged the validity of the petitioner's second complaint in claiming that Leahy should have been included in the ballot.

“Members felt that [the language of the constitution] explicitly denotes that eligibility for seeking office is not contingent on eligibility for holding office,” the abstract read. 

But the Court denied the petitioner's third claim regarding the occurrence of closed meetings held by the Election Committee. 

“[The] Court agreed that as a result of the vagueness of the term “public” and a lack of a specific definition of what is meant by the requirement that Election Committee meet and act in public … the Election Committee did not violate its constitutional obligations,” the abstract read. 

However, Austin, a Duncan College senior, emphasized in his letter the importance of publicizing meetings held by the Election Committee.   

“The Court ... instructs that the time and location of Election Committee meetings must be posted on the Student Association website 24 hours in advance,” Austin said in his letter. “In the event that the time and/or location of an Election Committee meeting changes, the public must be notified through official Student Association channels prior to the start of the meeting.” 

The Court also dismissed the petitioner's final claim of unconstitutional collaboration between the Executive Committee and the Election Committee. 

“Members felt that the text of this email and the signature included therein did not suggest problematic collaboration between the Executive Committee and the Election Committee,” the abstract read. 

While a challenge to the elections was unprecedented in the last four years, according to Austin, UCourt used procedures outlined in the 2014 Proposed SA Constitution that the Student Senate voted on for use in this case. 

“I admit when I first received notice of the challenge, the thought occurred to me that I had never seen anything like this in my four years on Court,” Austin said. “But from the start, we relied strictly on the procedure laid out in detail in the 2014 Proposed SA Constitution.”

Austin said UCourt handled the situation appropriately, emphasizing the work of investigator Colin Shaw (Duncan ‘16), as well as Secretaries Dan Abraham (Martel ‘16) and Makenzie Drukker (McMurtry ‘17). 

“Overall, I think all parties to the process would agree University Court went above and beyond the procedure we were required to adopt,” Austin said. “I'm really proud of everyone on Court and especially my investigator Colin Shaw and my Secretaries Dan Abraham and Makenzie Drukker for their literally tireless work in helping ensure we do this right.”

SA President Yoonjin Min believes that while only the affected ballot items should have been rerun, she respects UCourt’s decision. 

“Obviously the SA response to the petition was that the General Elections should only be rerun for the ballot items that were materially affected by the election,” Min, a Jones senior said. “That being said, we already had an election planned for this week, and it is not unreasonable for us to merge the ballots.”

Regarding what needs to be changed in order to avoid these election issues in the future, Austin said he deferred back to the Court’s decision, specifically as they relate to public meetings. 

“I think we all agree the definitions section should, in the future, have clear definitions on what constitutes public meetings and action,” Austin said.

Min said the passage of the new constitution will hopefully avoid issues in the future and expressed confidence that the rerun will run smoothly. 

“With the new Constitution being passed, hopefully we will be able to have a strong process to follow,” Min said. “I envision this rerun of General Elections to be much better, and [it] will set the precedent for the next round of elections next month.”

Min, however, said she has concerns about whether enough students will vote in the election rerun. 

“My biggest concern is getting the turnout required for the referenda (20%), because this is a rerun,” Min said. “Hopefully marketing and a strong push to be invested in student self-governance will be enough to encourage students to vote.”

Ravi Sheth Runs as Write-in Candidate

In light of the reelection, Martel junior Ravi Sheth has spearheaded an overnight social media campaign promoting himself as a write-in candidate. 

“I realized I had made a mistake by not running for president, and that there’s really an opportunity for me to insert myself and make change happen on campus,” Sheth said. “It’s sad to see this level of ridiculousness with the elections.”

Min said she believes Sheth’s write-in campaign will be important in encouraging student turnout. 

“The write-in campaign seems to be generating a lot of interest in the SA elections, which is important because, as I mentioned, turnout is a big concern,” Min said.

While Sheth said he does not fault the current student government leaders, he wants to see a change in the way SA is run. 

“There’s an institutional idea that the Student Association is a group of people that are mandated to show up in a room for an hour each week and work on things, and nothing actually really happens,” Sheth said. “But if we change the institutional expectations, we can change a lot of what the SA does, what it stands for and what it’s making on campus.” 

Leahy said that while getting his message across to students was more important than having his name on the ballot, he endorses Sheth for SA president. 

“I think that [Sheth] has the most experience, is the most capable of actually bringing change, and, perhaps most importantly, the most realistic understanding of the SA’s place in Rice University, especially relative to the administration,” Leahy said. 

Presidential Candidates’ Thoughts on Rerun

SA presidential candidate Min Ji Kim said she believes the election rerun is important in ensuring the voice of the student body is heard. 

“I think [the rerunning of the election] is the best thing for Rice,” Kim, a Lovett junior, said. “This whole situation is about ensuring the voice of Rice students is represented in the best way possible, so hopefully this rerun will make sure this whole situation doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Kim said she hopes students will choose to takes these elections seriously. 

“I hope students will still be involved and vote in the elections,” Kim said. “I hope that they realize the elections are serious and are important in deciding what’s best for Rice’s future.” 

Opposing SA presidential candidate Trent Navran, who won the original election, said he disagrees in the importance of the election rerun occurring in the first place. 

“I don't think this election should even be taking place, considering that I won the original election with a clear majority, alumni or no alumni,” Navran, a McMurtry College junior, said. “I respect [Sheth]’s last-minute desire to run for SA President, but combined with having [Leahy] run as a senior who can't actually serve as president, this entire process has become even less legitimate than the previous one.”

Navran said the inclusion of Leahy detracts from the viability of this election. 

“What we’re seeing now, which is supposed to be a ‘more just’ election, is allowing a candidate who is not a viable president to be on the ballot, which could take votes away from the two main candidates on the ballot,” Navran said.

With regards to the current state of political affairs at Rice, Leahy said he is not optimistic. 

“I would not say that the election system is broken, and I would not say that [this election is] an anomaly,” Leahy said. “I would say that the election system is plagued by both continued incompetence and student apathy, which have resulted in what may very closely represent a broken system.”

IVP Election

The election for the SA Internal Vice President will occur at the same time as the SA presidential election rerun. The three candidates for the SA IVP position are Hanszen College freshman Sai Chilakapati, Baker College junior Abby Gordon and Hanszen College junior Sharon Zhao. This position was not listed in the original ballot because no candidates were running at the time.

In his campaign statement, Chilakapati said he wants to prioritize the New Student Representative program. 

“My major goal for the upcoming year is to increase the retention rate of the NSR program by installing new leadership roles in the standing committees and best practice groups,” Chilakapati, a Hanszen NSR, said. 

Gordon said she plans to make the SA more accessible to the student body. 

“My goals to foster this accessibility include obtaining extensive student feedback on projects for SA committees and NSRs, improving communication with the student body in regards to these projects, promoting student involvement in the SA and empowering students to foster change through their own initiatives within the SA,” Gordon said.

According to Zhao’s campaign, she wants the SA to serve as a forum for students and organizations. 

“By offering them this platform and resources, we can ensure that greater trust will develop between the SA and the student body,” Zhao said. “The issues they present can then be examined and combined to create new projects for the NSR program.”

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