Election missteps may lead to invalid results
Elections Commission Chairperson Keenan Adams ’21 presented an update on the status of this week’s Student Government elections during Thursday's Senate meeting, in which several major errors were at the forefront of discussion: votes were cast by those who should not have been able to vote, and Google Forms was used to fix the incorrect categorization of students by class cohort—which included grouping first-year graduate students with freshmen.
These errors may lead to the invalidation of the election results, with Judicial Board Chairperson Adam Rabinowitz '20 saying, “an unconstitutional election was run.”
The following describes each of the errors in detail.
Students who did not pay the activity fee received ballots
Several students who were away on Arch were able to vote, even though they did not pay the Union Activity Fee this semester and should not have been included as an active member of the Union. According to the Rensselaer Union Constitution, “All students...who have paid the Union Activity Fee, shall constitute the membership of the Union.” The document outlines voting rights in Article VIII, Section IV: “Only members of the Union at the time of the elections shall have the right to vote or run for office.”
This root of the problem was in the list of Union members provided to the Elections Commission by the Office of the Bursar, as it incorrectly included students who were not on campus and did not pay the activity fee.
Brian Deiss ’21, who was mistakenly included on the list of Union members, told The Polytechnic that he was late when he switched his semester away from the Fall to the Spring and was still charged the Union Activity Fee. After asking the Office of the Bursar to manually edit his account and clear all charges, his account indicated a payment of $0 for the fee instead of showing no charge at all. “I think that's what ultimately allowed me to vote in this election,” Deiss told The Poly.
According to Rabinowitz “because some students reached out…and said that they were away and still got the vote, it essentially means the election is already invalid.”
He also reached out to the two previous J-Board chairpersons—Joshua Berman ’19 and Nathan James ’18—and met with his officers to see whether the J-Board could interpret the spirit rather than the direct wording of the Rensselaer Union Constitution. He came to the conclusion that “that’s not really how Student Government is supposed to work” and “I don’t think there is really room for differing interpretations [of the Rensselaer Union Constitution].”
Rabinowitz explained that the J-Board cannot take action to see whether or not the issue of temporarily inactive Union members' ability to vote in this election constitutes a violation of the Rensselaer Union Constitution until someone files an appeal, which he expressed “doesn’t seem like a very hard appeal to pull through.”
Grand Marshal Meagan Lettko ’20 held that this error was “completely out of the scope of the Elections Commission,” and that, “technically, the election was sound to their [the Elections Commission’s] knowledge, so that's not an error on the election itself,” but “an error on the information provided from a separate source.”
Rabinowitz responded, saying: “When you mention in the appeal that it's not our [the student government’s] fault, it doesn’t defend us from the fact that an unconstitutional election was run.”
To vote by their preferred cohort, some students had to vote through Google Forms
The ballot distributed through Simply Voting was based on the number of credits that a student had and presented no option to choose a ballot based on a student’s entry year cohort. This affected sophomores, juniors, and seniors, as everyone that enrolled in Fall 2019 was given a freshman ballot. According to Adams, this error was the subject of around one hundred email complaints.
The Student Government Elections Policy outlines the correspondence between credit and class year: students with 0–30 credits are in the Class of 2023, those with 31–60 credits are in the Class of 2022, those with 61–90 credits are in the Class of 2021, and those with more than 90 credits are in the Class of 2020.
This delineation caused several students in the Class of 2022 to receive ballots for candidates in the Class of 2021, and Grand Marshal candidate Marvin Rios ’20 received an alumni ballot instead of his class year’s ballot.
Adams justified the decision to sort voters in this way, explaining that the list of students who pay the Union activity fee that the Elections Commission received from the Office of the Bursar lists people by credit cohort, which he thought would be “the most error-free” way to sort students. The method of cohort categorization was not communicated beforehand with the student body.
After the Elections Commission sent out an email Wednesday morning with a link allowing students to vote, the grand marshal sent two emails on behalf of the Elections Commission, one describing the process to vote by entry year cohort through Google Forms, and the other as a correction to the first email.
The second email asked students to send an email from their RPI email address to the Elections Commission to validate their Google Forms submission, since the Google Form used students’ RCS IDs for verification—IDs which are publicly available through the RPI directory. Students who had already voted through Simply Voting then had to send their Simply Voting ballot receipt to the Elections Commission to discount the Simply Voting ballot.
At the end of the election, Simply Voting produced a list of students who voted. If a student who had voted through both Simply Voting and Google Forms did not submit a ballot receipt from Simply Voting, then the ballot submitted through Google Forms was discounted.
Initially, Simply Voting was chosen to uphold the privacy of voters since a record would be kept only of the students who voted—not who they voted for. All those who voted through Google Forms lost this privacy.
The Rensselaer Union Constitution says that “voting shall be by secret ballot” but historically, written ballots or absentee ballots have not been secret. According to Adams, “the EC chair has had the information for each individual ballot,” and, “could find the information.” He added: “We wouldn’t, but it's technically there.”
During the April 16 meeting of the Executive Board, Adams submitted a document explaining the features of Simply Voting where he wrote: “Simply Voting will allow us to group voters by class year.” Adams added that while there were still some technical details being worked out, Simply Voting “should allow us to have students that qualify for multiple cohorts to choose which cohort they would like to vote for.”
However, Simply Voting later informed Adams that the ability to choose a class cohort is generally not an option at other schools. Due to time constraints, Simply Voting could not adequately set up this feature in time for Grand Marshal Week. “As far as we are aware, it was not possible,” Adams reported during the Senate meeting.
Those who enrolled in Fall 2019 received a freshman ballot, including graduate and transfer students
Another error that occurred during the elections was the classification of every student who entered RPI in the Fall of 2019 as a freshman. This was intended to bypass the classification of freshmen students as sophomores due to credits but ended up including around 300 graduate students. According to Grand Marshal Meagan Lettko, this was “technically the only error made” with elections.
Adams took responsibility for the problem, but also repeatedly referred to the issue as an edge case. Graduate Senator Audrey Beard disagreed in a Webex message: “That’s not an edge case, that’s over 20 percent of the grad population.”
Just like those who were not able to vote by the correct class year, the initial fix for this issue was to submit a ballot through Google Forms, along with a receipt from Simply Voting if the student had already voted on that platform using the incorrect ballot.
When The Polytechnic asked what would happen if a graduate student that enrolled last fall voted and did not send a receipt, Adams answered that they would look into the matter to determine if the graduate students voted in a way that could determine the outcome of the freshman election.
The freshman ballot has multiple contested elections, not including write-in candidates. The Class of 2023 presidential race is contested between Harshil Patel and Scott Shwartz. For vice president, there are three candidates in the running: Varsha Jayaprakash, Sean Lisk, and Faizah Rabbye.
After expressing that 300 graduate students receiving freshman ballots was a “big blunder,” Graduate Student Senator Neha Keshan asked Adams if test runs of the election were conducted. Adams said that the Elections Commission ran mock elections prior to GM Week, but only received the complete list of activity-fee-paying students from the Office of the Bursar the previous Saturday. He said the Commission did not have sufficient time to run a full mock election and account for all of these ‘‘edge cases.”
When asked during the Senate meeting if the errors would require a redo of the election, Lettko answered that “We will not know the magnitude of the effect of the errors until the election is over,” going on to say, “then we can have that specific conversation.”
The Elections Commission has the power to decide the validity of the election prior to before releasing results. Once election results are announced, there is a 24-hour window to file a recount, challenge, or any other inquiry with the Election Commission in writing, as per the Article II, Section IV of the Elections Commission Handbook.
Any member of the RPI community that feels that the election was unconstitutional can open an inquiry. After an inquiry is filed, the Elections Commission will gather a summary of the circumstances surrounding the challenge and pass it off to the J-Board, which has the power to invalidate both specific elections or the entire election.
If this week’s elections are declared invalid and another election is not conducted before Commencement on May 23, then all graduating students will be removed from office, according to the Rensselaer Union Constitution. Once they graduate, they are no longer students, and thus cannot hold their positions in Student Government.
If a student holding office does not graduate this spring, then they will maintain their position, as terms begin from the date of election and end “with the conclusion of the next general election for their respective positions.” The invalid elections would not count as a general election.
As the grand marshal, president of the Union, and the Judicial Board chairperson are all graduating this year, their positions will become vacant and succession rules will determine the replacement for grand marshal and president of the Union. The next Judicial Board Chairperson Welby Huynh has already been approved by the Senate. Those succession rules are outlined as follows:
According to the Student Senate Bylaws, the vice grand marshal assumes the responsibilities of grand marshal until the Senate can appoint a new grand marshal. A new appointment must be made within two weeks to fill the vacant grand marshal position. The meeting has to be overseen by the J-Board chairperson, and the grand marshal nominee requires a two-thirds vote from the Senate to be elected. If there are two nominees, “a vote shall be taken, and the nominee with a simple majority shall be named the appointment for Grand Marshal” according to Article XIII of the Student Senate Bylaws.
The succession procedure for the president of the Union is similar. The vice president for board operations assumes the responsibilities of president of the Union. A meeting must then be called within two weeks of the vacancy of the president of the Union’s office to appoint a nominee for president of the Union.
In this case, Vice President for Board Operations Anissa Choiniere, currently running uncontested for president of the Union, would assume the position of acting president of the Union until the meeting to appoint a new president of the Union. In this meeting, a procedure similar to that of the Senate would take place, with the oversight of the Judicial Board chairperson and a two-thirds vote required for the election of the nominee.
The vice-president of the Judicial Board assumes responsibilities once the J-Board chairperson vacates their office until the J-Board is able to nominate a new chairperson from within their membership, which would then need to be approved by a two-thirds vote from the Senate.
[Editor's Note]: A previous version of the article said that if the election is invalid and the J-Board chairperson becomes vacant then succession rules will determine the new chairperson. This is incorrect as the next chairperson has already been approved by the Senate.