Student Senate

Elections Reform Task Force chair removed days after appointment

On April 25, Interim Vice President for Student Life LeNorman J. Strong announced via email the creation of the Elections Reform Task Force of the Student Senate. According to Strong, it planned to work with Vice President for Information Services and Technology John Kolb and others to “develop a project timeline and approach to analyzing the current election system as the student leaders decide whether to repair or replace the electronic system.” 

Strong wrote that they would “engage an audit firm at the appropriate time” for the purpose of “work[ing] with student leaders to identify issues and vulnerabilities with the voting system.” 

Class of 2020 Senator Joseph Lyon was appointed as the chair of the task force; its restricted membership included Elections Commission Chairperson Zachary Taylor ’21, Grand Marshal Stefanie Warner ’19, former Web Technologies Group Chairperson Sidney Kochman ’19, and Facilities and Services Chairperson Nancy Bush ’19.

The task force  replied to Strong’s email the following day supporting an audit of the elections process. It also listed a number of requests, including the ability to communicate directly with the auditors and that the task force would be the primary group for handling the audit process.

The task force then created an anonymous survey to “to collect campus sentiment on student government elections,” which asked respondents about changes with elections they would like to see as well as their thoughts on Rensselaer conducting an external audit. 

The survey was then distributed to all of the undergraduate email lists by Undergraduate President Josephine Lyons ’20 on May 1, accompanied by a message from Chairperson Joseph Lyon.

Later that day, Lyon was removed from his position as chairperson and his membership on the task force was revoked. According to Lyon, he was removed because Warner felt that approaching the undergraduate president and asking to send out the email with the survey went over her head and she didn’t like that dynamic.

“To my understanding, I was never told to not send an email out. It was my understanding that we were to send the survey as far as we could,” expressed Lyon. “I was told that [the Union membership list] couldn’t be used because [Warner] said a Union employee told her that it was being overused and we could possibly lose the list.”

“With the goal of this survey being to gauge student sentiment about the elections, I felt it was appropriate to seek out my undergraduate president and ask her to send it,” he later added. Lyon acknowledged that he should have sent a message about his decision to the rest of the task force, but that, as the chairperson distributing agreed-upon information, he didn’t feel required to run it by her.

Warner told The Poly that Lyon’s decision to approach the undergraduate president about sending the survey was an action that “went behind the task force’s back” and “abused the lists that [Undergraduate President] Josephine [Lyons] had.” 

Warner further elaborated that “he should have at least given the task force a heads-up” and that sending the email without notifying her was “a very harsh thing to jump to.” When asked if sending the email—and spreading the survey as widely as possible—was what she wanted to accomplish, Warner said that it was, but not without the task force in “good communication.”

“I did want to reach as many people as possible, but I just think that he made a split second decision that could have come [from] a conclusion of the task force, but that he just kind of irrationally did it by himself,” she explained.   

When asked if there were any other issues expressed with his performance as chairperson, Lyon shared that Warner had pulled him aside earlier that day and said that she wanted to ensure he was “not operating with bias” due to the errors that he experienced during the election.

Lyon ran a write-in campaign for Class of 2020 senator after he did not receive sufficient nominations, but was listed on the ballot until the voting system was updated part-way through election day. According to Lead Systems Administrator David Raab ’19, the votes that he received while listed on the ballot could not easily be recovered. The discrepancy in the election for the last Class of 2020 senator seat was settled by a vote of the Class of 2020 Council, which Lyon won.

Lyon’s personal experiences raised questions about other parts of the election, such as the possibility that a candidate was removed from the ballot and immediately re-added—which would not be noticeable from a voter’s perspective, if done quickly enough. This action would essentially reset the candidate’s vote count. While these changes would be recorded in a log, that log could have also been edited—which would not be immediately noticeable from the perspective of a system administrator or an Elections Commission member.  

According to Raab, editing the log would likely be traceable, but the Union systems administrators are not familiar enough with the technologies involved to investigate this; however, it could potentially be revealed by an audit.

When The Poly asked Warner why she removed Lyon from the task force, she expressed that her first concern was his “predisposed bias” and that he spoke about his personal involvement in the elections multiple times during internal meetings. The second concern was having the survey sent to the undergraduate mailing lists. According to Lyon, the issue of bias was not cited as a reason for his removal during their one-on-one meeting in which he was removed from his position.

In the Senate meeting wherein Lyon was appointed to the chair, Warner said that “[she] is only overseeing” and that “[she] fully trust[s] Joey to lead that task force.” When asked what changed, she said that “the bias presented itself” and that she anticipated his role as more technical. 

“I think it comes down to Joey came into this with the situation that I didn’t think would affect him being able to lead, but I think the bias really stems from he doesn’t know what’s going on—neither do—no one knows what’s going on with the logs in the task force. We can assume but we’re not sure. And then, on top of that, there’s a lot of human errors that happened. So, I just think that those could create some strong bias,” said Warner, while discussing how Lyon’s experiences with the election would affect his performance as chairperson. 

“Without total knowledge of how the system works, I have only been able to speculate with the information I have. This is why I would hope for a full review of the elections process, and why I was very interested in the role of leading the Elections Reform Task Force,” wrote Lyon in an email to The Poly that outlined his concerns with the election.