Note: The student judiciary at UMass Amherst has upheld the Elections Commission ruling in the dispute I discuss in this piece. See the end of the article for an overview.

I recently stumbled across a story about this spring’s student government elections at UMass Amherst, and it raised some issues about campaign regulations that I see fairly often.

Five slates ran candidates for president and vice president in this month’s UMass SGA elections, and the ticket of Ellie Miske and Gabrielle Cook won—decisively, if not overwhelmingly. The two picked up 36% of the votes cast in a fractured field, beating their nearest competitor by about a hundred and fifty votes. A third member of their ticket, Emily Devenney, won the college’s student trustee seat by a slightly wider margin.

After the votes were tallied, though, the winning ticket was disqualified by the SGA’s elections committee and the second-place team was declared the winner. The disqualification was grounded in three violations of election rules: The use of a 10%-off coupon at the campus copy shop, the use of a candidate’s personal printer to copy election materials, and a candidate’s campaigning in a dorm without an escort.

The Miske-Cook-Devenney ticket is challenging the disqualification, and from this outsider’s perspective it seems that they have a decent case on each of the three charges.

Regarding the copy shop, the committee found that the use of the coupon amounted to a prohibited appropriation of campaign funds and a violation of the rule that “all candidates must purchase their materials at fair market prices to which all other candidates shall have reasonable access. The first of these conclusions seems flatly wrong to me—the copy shop didn’t “appropriate funds for the purpose of campaigning,” as prohibited by the SGA regulations, they just offered a general discount to the campus community. And while reasonable people can disagree about the definition of “reasonable access,” it  certainly seems a stretch to construe the coupon use as a willful violation of the rule.

The printer complaint is perhaps a bit stronger, but here again the rule is arguably ambiguous—and also a little odd. Candidates are required to declare all equipment and supplies used in campaigning, but both “computers” and “copy machines” are explicitly exempted from disclosure. It seems counter-intuitive, to say the least, that a candidate would be allowed undisclosed, unregulated use of a personally-owned copier but be prohibited from printing out flyers they designed on their (explicitly unregulated) computer on its (implicitly regulated) attached printer.

As for the unescorted campaigning complaint, it doesn’t appear to have been grounded in any specific provision of the SGA’s own bylaws, but rather in a broad prohibition on candidates violating any aspect of the campus code of conduct. In this case, the code says that no student may engage in solicitation in a dorm building—with “solicitation” defined as “planned, in-person sharing of information with and/or requesting of information from students living in a University residence.”

Now, campaigning for student government office is certainly “sharing of information with and/or requesting of information from students,” but so is interviewing residents for the student newspaper, and it’s hard to imagine anyone being brought up on charges for that. There’s also no indication in the elections report that any of the students who were approached by vice presidential candidate Gabrielle Cook in the dorms objected to the contact, and no suggestion that campus conduct charges against her were ever lodged.

Honestly, I’m kind of conflicted about all this. On the one hand, I think it’s important for elections to have rules, and important that those rules be followed. On the other hand, it’s also important that the will of the students be respected in campus elections, and significant that this disqualification has the effect of thwarting that will.

These kinds of questions come up a lot in student elections, partly because there are so few remedies available when the rules are broken. If you violate campaign laws in an actual government-government election, you’re almost never going to have your election thrown out. Instead, you’ll be fined or prosecuted. But because those options aren’t in the toolkit of a student elections board, disqualifying candidates tends to be the go-to remedy.

It’s not unreasonable, in principle, to disqualify a student association candidate for election violations, but it is a huge, drastic step to take, and should be treated like one. As I said above, when you kick a candidate off the ballot—or worse, bar the winning candidate from taking office—you’re thwarting the will of the students, denying them the prerogative to choose their own representatives. That’s not just anti-democratic, it’s profoundly corrosive of students’ support for their student association—support that tends not to be all that high to begin with.

Given all that, candidates should only be disqualified where their actions have fundamentally compromised the democratic process through willful, substantive violation of the rules. You kick them out when it would demonstrably do the system more harm not to.

And what about the other, less egregious cases? What do you do with them? I don’t have a simple one-sentence answer for that one. I can think of a variety of remedies that might have value in specific circumstances—censure, allowing the next year’s assembly to take up the complaint, throwing the election out and starting over, docking a portion of a stipend—though each of them has obvious drawbacks. It’s a difficult question.

But in the case of UMass it seems a pretty easy call. Whatever the misdeeds of the disbarred ticket, the flaws in the rules loom at least at large. If you don’t want candidates using coupons to buy supplies, you should say so clearly. If personal copiers and personal printers are to be treated differently from each other, that should be made explicit. And if you’re going to kick an entire winning ticket off the ballot because one of its members talked to some students in a dorm without a chaperone, that should be made obvious in the rules, not left for the candidates to discover for themselves in the code of conduct.

If all that had been done before this election—if the SGA’s regulations had explicitly banned coupons and copiers and unescorted dorm visits—I’d find the penalty imposed a lot more proportionate. I’d likely still disagree with the rules themselves, but I wouldn’t see the punishment imposed for violating them as unreasonable.

As it stands now, though, it seems to me that the sensible thing to do is to seat the winning ticket, let the students’ voice be heard…and then fix the regs so that this situation never arises again.

May 1 Update | The student judiciary at UMass Amherst voted unanimously last night to uphold the Election Commission’s ruling. Some highlights from their decision, which an Amherst student forwarded to me by email:

  • The value of the disputed copy center coupon was found to have amounted to somewhere between three and nine dollars “and allowed the DMC ticket to produce a greater number of fliers than other candidates.” Evidence was offered that a candidate from another ticket had requested a coupon and been denied it.
  • The candidate who was accused of campaigning in a dorm without an escort said she had been escorted by residents for most of her visit to the building in question, but admitted that she had talked to students in the building’s lobby while her escort was not present. (She testified that she hadn’t realized that campaigning solo in the lobby was disallowed.)
  • The judiciary brushed aside the question of whether a printer and a copier are the same thing, finding that the relevant violation was in using the printer to produce campaign fliers in an unauthorized manner.

In the end, the judiciary found that talking to some students in a dorm lobby, using a coupon to produce campaign lit, and printing out 20-25 unauthorized fliers on a personal printer “significantly impacted the outcome of the election,” and thus constituted cause for setting aside the result.