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Thomas contests election via UCourt

By Yasna Haghdoost     2/28/17 10:24pm

Two apparent constitutional violations have occurred during the Student Association election, and SA President Griffin Thomas has filed a complaint with University Court to contest the election. The Elections Committee prohibited part-time students from voting and dropped former presidential candidate Maurice Frediere’s name from the ballot without approval from the Senate; both these actions appear to violate the SA constitution. In a statement to the Thresher, the Elections Committee said their exclusion of part-time students was a “misunderstanding and miscommunication” and they would work with UCourt to rectify their error.

Over three dozen part-time students notified the Thresher claiming they had not received a ballot. Some part-time students who began the semester full time, such as McMurtry College senior Makenzie Drukker and Brown College senior Brian Cook, said they did receive an email containing the ballot link.

In their statement, the Elections Committee said they erred in excluding part-time students, but said they could not correct or resend the ballot without going through UCourt.

“Because the timeline of the election must be introduced to Senate three weeks prior to the general election, we cannot resend the ballot to all enrolled students at this point without disrupting the previously proposed timeline,” the committee wrote. “We believe [Thomas] did the right thing and we will work with UCourt to make this right.”

According to SA Secretary Sonal Pai, whose constitutional responsibilities include guiding the Elections Committee director, part-time students were not meant to receive ballots. Before the Elections Committee released its statement, Pai said any part-time students receiving ballots was a mistake.

In his email to UCourt, Thomas alleges unconstitutional activity by the Elections Committee regarding the exclusion of part-time students from voting and the removal of Frediere’s name from the ballot without a Senate vote. However, some students claim to have seen Frediere’s name on the ballot. Thomas, who did not know about the decision to exclude part-time students until voting began, called for a rerun.

According to the SA constitution, “All currently enrolled undergraduate students of Rice University shall be members of the Student Association and, accordingly, shall be required to pay the undergraduate blanket tax.”

The constitution also states, “All members of the Student Association are eligible to vote in all Student Association elections.” None of this semester’s SA minutes mentioned part-time students were ineligible to vote.

Will Rice College senior and part-time student Martin Torres said he did not receive a ballot. He said he voted when Will Rice senior Lauren Wood forwarded the ballot email she received, and that both of them ultimately voted.

Dozens of part-time students claimed they never received an email with the link to the ballot. McMurtry senior and part-time student Seth Berggren said he was disappointed he couldn’t vote, and said he hopes this was an honest mistake by the Elections Committee.

“I’m still an active member of the Rice undergraduate community and I care about making my voice heard,” Berggren said. “When voting opened, I was confused as to why I wasn’t able to vote. I realize mistakes happen, so I really hope this was simply a clerical error.”

SA presidential candidate Jake Nyquist said the recent events have negatively impacted the candidates and the student body.

“Errors like this contribute to skepticism toward the SA that, even as a candidate to be its president, is hard for me not to buy into,” Nyquist, a Will Rice junior, said. “We should hold the SA accountable for providing reliable elections that the students can trust.”

Wiess College junior Hannah Todd, who launched a write-in campaign for SA president on Monday, said she felt Thomas’ decision was necessary given the circumstances.

“The SA always strives for consistency and fairness and I believe this election’s events made this necessary,” Todd said.

Presidential candidate Justin Onwenu said he felt members of the current SA executive team and Elections Committee’s social media support for Todd had been a factor in why Thomas had requested the election be rerun.

“It’s completely unfair and win or lose, students deserve to have a fair election, myself included," Onwenu said. "[Thomas] filed to have the election redone because of mistakes made by the very same committee that has a vested interest in making sure [Todd] gets a full campaign schedule to campaign. [Todd] is the nicest person I know. But this election has gone off the rails.”

Onwenu later retracted that remark and said that he was referring to unresolved conflicts of interest on the Elections Committee, but did not mean to suggest that the committee had helped Todd.

"I think the best option is to restart the process with a new call for petitions and approval of the ballot so that [Todd] can be verified as a candidate," Onwenu said.

Thomas said the situation is due to a miscommunication among the Elections Committee, and he voted at 8 p.m. Monday before Todd announced her candidacy when he noticed Frediere was not on the ballot. He said he did not intend to undermine Onwenu’s campaign.

“It’s an unfortunate allegation considering I said I was voting for [Onwenu], so the allegation that I would not only revoke that endorsement but then take actions to significantly undermine [Onwenu’s] campaign are both a little bit ridiculous and greatly offensive,” Thomas said.

Thomas called into question any possibility that SA leadership could have tried to influence the election in Todd's favor.

"The finalized student list of participants was uploaded last week, well before [Todd] had ever announced her candidacy," Thomas said. "To accuse someone on the Cabinet of rigging the system in someway would mean that the person would have had to influenced the Election Committee before Hannah had even announced her candidacy or lost her presidential race at Weiss."

Managing Editor Anita Alem contributed to this report. The online version of this article was edited to reflect statements made by Onwenu and Thomas after the print edition went to press.

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