Controversy over SA election rules

The Undergraduate Student Association Elections Committee expects to bring a case before the Student Court challenging the SA executive board's position on the constitutionality of amending the USAEC election guidelines.

The impending case was prompted by the failure of a Wednesday night reading of new election guidelines proposed by sophomore Thomas Buneo, chair of USAEC. The proposals failed with four members of Student Association executive board opposed and three abstaining. Buneo had hoped to have the guidelines approved in time for spring elections, which must conclude before the registration period begins.

"The new guidelines were essentially rejected because several constitutional questions were raised as to whether or not the SA executive board can propose amendments to USAEC's guidelines due to the fact that there are different interpretations to the constitutions," Buneo said. "But, they really shouldn't be able to because it represents a conflict of interest," referring to the fact that some members of the SA executive board may be interested in running for positions next year and could therefore influence the guidelines to which they will be subjected.

Senior Haleema Murtaza, SA president, noted at the Wednesday night meeting that the chair of USAEC is in the same position.

Buneo cited Article 6, Section 3 of the SA Constitution to support his claim that the SA executive board has no clearly stated authority to amend guidelines or policies proposed by USAEC.

The section reads: "The USAEC shall establish its own procedures with the approval of the Executive Committee." According to Buneo, the word "approval" is key, as other organizations' constitutions use alternative language such as "amend," "consent" or "advise."

If the guidelines fail to be approved by the SA executive board before the spring elections, the guidelines that were used last semester will be deferred to. Buneo said that he believes the proposed guidelines would greatly improve the efficiency of the election process.

"A lot of the changes would have strengthened the committee and the role of the chair in terms of enforcement to make sure that [election] rules are being followed the entire time," Buneo said. "It also condensed the documents into something readable that could have helped clear up any vagueness."

Some of the revisions would have added two new articles that allow students who are studying abroad, student teaching or interning to run in elections. If passed, the new article will allow students who are not within a "respectable distance" from campus to appoint a designee to handle all campaigning duties.

The reading also revised Internet campaign policies to be in accordance with the election rules used by SUNY Purchase.

"We intended to completely overhaul our Internet policy so that anything with regards to e-mailing or Facebook groups would have had to be forwarded to the chair of USAEC for approval," Buneo said. In addition, a clause regulating the use of the Internet during voting hours was amended to prohibit any use of the Internet during the period of voting in general in addition to door-to-door petitioning.

The USAEC, had the guidelines been approved, would have been responsible for approving all materials for use in elections, including electronic content. All flyers, posters, Facebook groups, Facebook statuses and other campaigning materials would have had to be submitted and approved before publication.

"We wanted to make sure candidates don't accidentally break the rules and avoid a situation similar to last year," Buneo said. "We want to avoid having to resort to Student Court, basically. As much as they're good at it, we don't want it to get to that point in an election, nor do they."

Last year, Student Court heard a case by a candidate for an executive board position accusing the Imagine party of violating campaign guidelines. It was ultimately determined that the election had been sufficiently compromised enough to warrant a re-election for the contested positions.

Originally, Buneo had intended to eliminate the existence of parties in elections altogether in response to the controversy around last year's election.

"After seeking legal advice from SA's lawyers, USAEC decided it would be too complicated to implement this policy legally. Therefore, the existence of parties would not have changed [with the revisions]."

Other revisions including separating the guidelines regulating SA executive board and class officer elections into two documents and authorizing campaigning during the voting period beyond 50 feet of designated polling sites.

"We really tried to incorporate everyone's opinion," Buneo said. "I hoped it would have brought us much more sane elections."

During the Wednesday night meeting, SA Vice President and junior Nicholas Kaasik proposed an amendment changing the policy which would have required pre-approval for all campaign materials, citing concerns over possible freedom of speech infringements, particularly with regard to electronic communications on social networking sites.

Buneo responded to Kaasik's proposal by maintaining that members of SA executive board could not make amendments to the guidelines, and could only approve or fail them in their entirety.

At the meeting, junior Mathé Kamsutchom, SA director of public relations, said that Buneo's stance was "highly discouraging."

"To not even be open to the fact that amendments can be made is close-minded," Kamsutchom said.

Murtaza acknowledged that many of the propositions in the reading were indeed positive and worthwhile changes, but said that Buneo erred in his interpretation of SA policy, which indicates that special committees of SA such as USAEC are run in accordance with the SA Constitution and the eight-person executive board which carries out both the legislative and executive functions of SA.