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Letter to the Editor: Everyone loses with UCourt election decision

By Brian Baran     3/9/17 5:22pm

To the Editor,

I was perplexed to hear Monday night that the University Court, faced with an election in which the Student Association disenfranchised a class of voters, nonetheless substantially upheld the results. The decision strikes me as the latest development in a trend toward disregard for the value of process.

I am by no means the first to compare this election to the Great Election Fiasco of 2014 — the late-breaking write-in campaign, the UCourt challenge and a new constitution on the ballot to boot. The comparison was apt. Until now.

As someone intimately involved in 2014 — I argued the case for the SA — still familiar with the election procedures — how could I forget? — I was asked to share my thoughts on the 2017 election. (It just so happens I also went part-time my final semester while continuing to hold office and vote.)

I hesitate to weigh in out of respect for my former colleagues on UCourt and my firm view that student government is for students. But someone has to speak up for process.

Barely three years ago, UCourt required that the SA rerun the entire election due to the Elections Committee’s decision to omit the joke candidate for president from the ballot and a security breach that allowed 14 alumni to vote and two students to double-vote — not nearly enough to affect the outcome of anything except the constitutional referendum.

UCourt’s reasoning indicated either issue would have been sufficient to require a rerun to preserve the integrity of the process. UCourt explicitly rejected the concept that only violations able to change the outcome warranted rerunning the election. That interpretation was hotly debated, but it commands respect as a principled decision putting integrity and public confidence first.

The same judicial body now tells students the integrity of the process and public confidence don’t matter so much after all. The SA improperly kicked a real, albeit withdrawn, candidate off the ballot. While voting was still underway, the SA admitted it disenfranchised voters and effectively conceded the election needed to be rerun, tainting the process for all voters (surely one is less likely to vote in an election almost certain to be thrown out).

Yet somehow UCourt concluded the show must go on. The election results, irreparably damaged by disenfranchisement, voter confusion and ballot access issues, must stand.

UCourt claims its goal is to “preserve the integrity of the election” by choosing “the option that would cause the least disturbance to the elections.” But how does effectively signing off on an admittedly unconstitutional election preserve its integrity? Where in the SA Constitution does UCourt see a command to take the path of least resistance at the expense of correcting a constitutional violation?

Last time, the SA lost the case. But it lost in the name of integrity. This time, everybody lost. UCourt’s decision damages candidates, voters and the very idea of procedural integrity.

Perhaps just as disturbing about UCourt’s decision is that it reaches out to disenfranchise students who have not paid the blanket tax (often because they are studying abroad). These students have long been eligible to vote.*

UCourt’s substantive decision is unappealable, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do for students who care about the integrity of their election system — and government.

Next time you think process is just about reading (or CTRL+F-ing) a long, silly document, think again. I’d have started with the table of contents link for “Voter Eligibility.” Next time you think a procedural slip-up is too minor to matter, think again. Getting in the habit of following procedure helps prevent mistakes that do matter.

In short, this year’s election shenanigans should be a wake-up call: Process matters.

Brian C. Baran, Duncan ’15, is a former University Court chair and Student Association parliamentarian.

*Indeed, Section XII.A.3 of the SA constitution states:

“All members of the Student Association are eligible to vote in all Student Association elections. If in question, a person’s membership shall be verified by the Office of the Registrar, which shall determine whether the person in question is a currently enrolled undergraduate student at Rice University.” (emphasis added)

The second sentence makes clear that the sole question is the same one Section II.A.1 makes the sole criterion of membership: whether the student is a currently enrolled undergraduate.

Indeed, to reach its conclusion, UCourt had to rewrite Section XII.A.3. Its abstract states: “If voter eligibility is in question, the Elections Committee should verify with the Office of the Registrar that the student in question is both currently enrolled as an undergraduate and pays blanket tax.”

Still unpersuaded? Look at the language prior to our 2014 amendments. In 2013, Section I.1 of the SA constitution read, “All undergraduate students of Rice University who have paid the undergraduate blanket tax shall be members of the Student Association.”

It’s hard to read the change from that to defining “currently enrolled undergraduate students” as members and requiring them to pay the blanket tax as anything but an attempt to ensure that enrolled students would not be denied membership (and thus the vote) regardless of whether they paid the blanket tax.

Indeed, we specifically wrote the definition to encompass students studying abroad at the time of an election. (They’re enrolled in AWAY credits.)

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