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Tuesday, April 23, 2024 — Houston, TX

The constitutional challenge is right — and new SA leaders must learn its lessons

By Thresher Editorial Board     3/5/24 10:09pm

When the former Student Association president introduced a new constitution in April 2023, the Senate was ready. The document passed the deliberative body with just one no vote, then received 55% approval in a 48-hour special election with barely 10% turnout.

SA leaders declared victory, but a particularly attentive student caught a glaring discrepancy. The constitution at the time required two-thirds of students to approve amendments with at least 20% of the undergraduate body voting, neither of which the hasty special election met. The student filed a complaint, and the University Court unanimously agreed. The new constitution was overturned.

In November 2023, the Senate again passed a series of strikingly similar amendments. SA leadership decided to wait until the regular election to seek student body approval. This time, 36% of undergraduates voted on the amendments, 83% of them in favor. With those boxes now checked, SA leaders declared victory.

But there was another problem. The ballot contained a bulleted list of “major changes” to the constitution, none of which included the most notable — and the most dangerous: Future constitutional amendments can pass with a simple majority without any minimum threshold on voter participation. Quick, low turnout special elections for power-grabbing referendums could become the norm. The ballot twisted distressing changes into something palatable, correctly trusting that students would not take the time to read the convoluted documents.

The day after voting opened, a particularly thoughtful student filed a complaint with the University Court.

“This is now the second time the student association senate has tried to subvert the will of the people they claim to represent,” the unnamed complainant wrote. “Last year they ignored the results of a properly run election and passed a similar amendment that did not get enough votes. When that failed they misrepresented the content of the amendment in order to pass an amendment that consolidated power in the hands of fewer people.”

This student is completely correct. Last spring, the SA tried to push a new constitution through a quiet special election. This time, they passed it right under our noses.

The ballot should have directly stated the dangerous changes the SA proposed. Instead, it advocated for it.

SA leaders should have fought voter apathy and informed students about the proposals. Instead, the unnamed student alleged that they took advantage.

We hope the University Court once again overturns this series of amendments. But regardless of the outcome, incoming SA leaders must learn from this complaint.

To be clear, these last two referendums have been plainly undemocratic. The SA sought to increase its own power. The first time, they tried a quick, low-key election that obviously broke their own rules. The second time, they allegedly sought to misrepresent the changes on the supposedly neutral ballot.

The new executive board members all said they would focus on connecting with the student body. This includes transparency, and it includes honesty. As we noted before the election, we do need a new constitution, and some of these amendments are strong. We urge the new executive board to develop a proper governing document with robust student input and a clear, fair ballot.

When it comes to the constitution — the foundation of student governance at Rice — we can accept nothing less.

Editor’s Note: Thresher editorials are collectively written by the members of the Thresher’s editorial board. Current members include Prayag Gordy, Riya Misra, Nayeli Shad, Brandon Chen, Sammy Baek, Sarah Knowlton, Hadley Medlock and Pavithr Goli. 

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