Tech glitches subvert election legitimacy

Student self-governance has been the pride of Vassar since the founding of the Vassar Student Association in 1868. As the backbone and voice of the student body, the VSA is of paramount importance—tasked with upholding professionality, transparency and an honest election process.

In the senate meeting on Sunday, April 14, attendees called into question the integrity of VSA’s most recent election, the results of which were announced on Friday, April 12. After lengthy deliberations, the VSA Senate ultimately passed a motion to hold a re-election for all constituent-specific positions: House Officer, Class Senator and Senior Class Council.

The contention began with an appeal Josselyn House Treasurer runner-up Chase Estes ’22 made under Article XI Section 11 Section B of the VSA bylaws, which states that any candidate may appeal if “[T]here existed an appearance of irregularity or impropriety related to the official result of the election” (Documents 2017, THE BYLAWS OF THE VASSAR STUDENT ASSOCIATION, Article XI – Elections and Appointments). Estes made his appeal before having received his vote count, after having seen allegedly invalid posters put up by his opponent. However, unbeknownst to Estes, there were larger issues at play regarding the election outcome.

Immediately following the introduction of his appeal, the VSA moved toward a discussion of broader software mishaps that could have influenced the election results. Big Pulse, the software used for vote counting, listed an incorrect number of eligible voters. The group size was stretched to over 6,000 people—more than the number of
students currently enrolled at Vassar. The glitches did not stop there. Electronic ballots also did not account for closed constituencies, opening house-specific voting to students who did not reside in the election building, and allowing all class years to vote for class-specific positions.

It seems as if the Board of Elections and the VSA were aware of these issues even while the election was still in session, given an all-campus email dated Wednesday, April 10, stating, “IF YOU SEE AN ELECTION YOU ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO VOTE FOR, DO NOT VOTE FOR IT.”

“The group size [of eligible voters] was stretched to over 6,000 people—more than the number of students currently enrolled at Vassar.”

In VSA senate, Vice President Rori-Ann Chuck ’19 explained, “We speculated that those people were class of 2023 but we don’t know. It could be repeat names, it could be last year’s people who weren’t taken off. We don’t know” (VSA Notes, 04.14.2019).

With the stage now set as clearly as it could, all in attendance at VSA were faced with a contentious debate: the potential of redoing both constituent-based elections and campus-wide exec elections. Some in attendance were not happy with the scope of the conversation, including President-elect Carlos Eduardo Espina ’21, who had attended the meeting as a proxy.

“Members of the VSA executive board have very publicly stated their support for Jenny Luo [who finished 47 votes behind
Espina in Presidential Count 1] and their opposition to my candidacy,” Espina stated after a request for comment from the Misc. “Now that I have won, these same members have continued to express on social media and in conversation similar sentiments. Therefore, given the lack of evidence that problems with the voting software affected campus-wide positions, I think it is logical to assume that the real motive behind proposing a re-do of the executive position elections has nothing to do with preserving the integrity of the election’s outcomes.”

Espina cited a Facebook post from Chuck endorsing Luo, which reads, “We love someone with experience who understands what it takes to create change and advocate on students’ behalf! Who isn’t talking about making changes to the college that are already underway and have been worked on by student leaders across campus these last two years!”(Rori-An Chuck via Facebook, 04.05.2019).

After contesting that merely the eligibility of 6000 people to vote in the election was enough to question the results—regardless of whether they chose to—2020 Senator for Activities Jacob Miller ’20 alleged, “Personal attacks should not be tolerated.” The point was met with widespread agreement.

More heated back-and-forth regarding whether to re-vote led VSA President Tamar Ballard ’19 to instruct all present to “take a communal deep breath.” She then moved VSA Senate into closed Senate session (VSA Notes). After the session, Ballard motioned to hold re-elections for house and class positions, while tabling a conversation on all-campus positions to next Sunday, until more statistical information was made available. The motion was passed.

According to Chuck, in the past, large decisions regarding elections would typically be resolved by the judicial board. As the board has since been absorbed by the student conduct panel, the VSA would need to make the decision using quorum, which is two-thirds of the VSA senate (VSA Notes). Anyone who ran for any position was not called to vote due to conflict of interest. Espina, on the other hand, remained present as a proxy, which gave him access to the closed session and a vote in the quorum. The final tally was 16 yes for a re-do, with three abstentions.

However, the deliberations that took place prior to the closed session gave VSA attendees the opportunity to flag their concerns. Many of these have been echoed on the part of elects-in-flux, following Tamar’s student-wide email on Monday, April 15, announcing the upcoming re-election. For one, 2019 Senator for Student Affairs Jesser Horowitz ’19 [Full Disclosure: Horowitz is a Columnist for the Misc] stated that “[The revote] definitely hurts the integrity of the elections process” (VSA Notes). Chair of Organizations Dea Oviedo Vazquez ’20 contested that the increased group number did not implicate that votes were casted outside of the College, given that the voter turnout was 1240. She claimed the high turnout was a reflection of campaigning, not software issues. Disagreeing, Chair of Programming Arjun Singh ’20 explained, “1200 is an anomaly, it is higher than we’ve seen in the past years,” given that approximately 900 people voted the year before (VSA Notes). However, three days later on April 17, Ballard announced to the student body that, “CIS was able to confirm that no one other than current students voted in that first election.”The exact influence of double votes is still uncertain.

“Proposing a re-do of the executive position elections has nothing to do with preserving the integrity of the election’s outcomes.”
–Carlos Eduardo Espina ’21

With new elections currently being held between April 17 and 19, constituents speculate that there will be decreased voter turnout. As Davison House President-elect Weller Henderson shared, “[M]y primary concern is that fewer people are going to vote in the reelection, now that a whole week has passed since the campaigns.” Others have lamented the possibility that room draw will be postponed, since ResLife traditionally places house team members in rooms prior to opening selections to the rest of the student body. Ballard later clarified that VSA has worked with ResLife to ensure the new timeline will not disrupt room draw, which begins on Monday, April 22.

In fact, some recent elects are in support of the revote. For Henderson, the decision will assure elects of their win and ensure runner-ups are granted a fair race. On a personal note, Henderson explained, “I would not have wanted to win unfairly.” Espina reflected, “I do believe that there should be a re-do of the elections for house and class senator positions, since these were clearly impacted by problems with the software.”

“To only redo the election for class and house specific positions is inconsistent with the technical mistakes in all the elections.”
– Mendel Jiménez ’20

The next round of elections will ask all students to vote again for the same constituencies, using Big Pulse with CIS support. As such, there is a strict rule against campaigning. Ballard implored, “VSA and all its processes, including voting, can only work with as much student involvement as possible, so I hope that students will be open to working with us as we try to get through all of this.”

The re-elections have already began to create some fallout amongst VSA members. Board of Elections Chair Angela Sbano ’19 announced her resignation via campus-wide email on Monday, April 15. “My decision to step down was a very personal one,” Sbano said. “Trying to get the election software to work was a difficult and frustrating process that took a lot of my time away from other aspects of my life. Since I understood why people felt this decision was important, I decided the best option for
me was to resign.”

Within several hours of Sbano’s resignation, VSA 2018-19 Chair of Finance and Vice President-elect Mendel Jiménez ’20 resigned in an email to Ballard, Espina and the Misc. “The integrity of the electoral process was shattered because of various factors such as the inaccurate voter rolls,” Jiménez, who won by 108 votes, wrote. “To only redo the election for class and house specific positions is inconsistent with the technical mistakes in all the elections. I cannot in good conscience assume the position of Vice President with full confidence.”

In response, Espina denounced the reasons he perceived were actually behind Jimenez’s resignation. “The fact that he continues to call the [exec] elections illegitimate despite there being no evidence supporting this claim makes evident his unwillingness to respect the will of the voters,” Espina claimed. “Therefore, I hope Mendel’s departure will open up space for someone who is ready to put personal interests aside and work towards creating positive change at Vassar.”

As of Wednesday, April 18, Espina remains President-elect. But doubt remains as speculation regarding the legitimacy of the exec election persists across campus. Next Sunday’s senate meeting will bring with it more information about the software’s impact on all-campus elections. VSA will determine if these positions, too, will need to be re-voted.

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