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Editorial: Broken elections, broken UCS

After years of apathy among students, this year’s student government election finally attracted attention — but for all the wrong reasons.

On April 18, the Student Government Association announced that Chas Steinbrugge ’24 had won the race for president of the Undergraduate Council of Students. But on April 22, UCS announced that Steinbrugge was not, in fact, president-elect.

Despite eliminating its elections threshold and runoffs earlier this month, SGA suddenly changed course and announced a runoff between Steinbrugge and Ricky Zhong ’23, initially the runner-up.

The reversal stemmed from contradictions between the new SGA election procedures — which use plurality voting — and the UCS constitution — which requires runoff elections when no candidate initially receives a majority of the vote.

In this election cycle, there are no winners. Both Steinbrugge and Zhong are victims of this chaos. Steinbrugge had a once-certain victory ripped from his hands. Zhong had to fight for a runoff election that, according to the UCS constitution, he was entitled to all along.
This pandemonium would not have happened if student government simply followed its own rules.

But that’s easier said than done, since nobody seems to know what the rules are. The SGA election procedures are the law of the land, until they aren’t. This runoff is only occurring because UCS leadership determined that the UCS constitution takes precedence over the SGA rules. But UCS rules don’t always trump SGA rules. The publicly-available UCS Elections Code, for example, does not. As UCS leadership explained in an April 22 email to the student body, that is “a document that we did not use in this election process since the SGA coordinated elections.” From the website, however, that was not apparent to the student body, least of all Steinbrugge, who lodged complaints alleging violations of that code in response to the runoff.

Who has the final say in how bylaws and codes are interpreted and which rules take precedence over others? According to that same email, “the UCS constitution grants the executive the ability to determine election procedures on any given year.” The UCS constitution says no such thing.

Article VIII, section one of the constitution, which is posted on the UCS website, states that “the undergraduate student body shall elect members to the Undergraduate Council of Students as described in the bylaws.” However, bylaws cannot be changed solely by the executive; they must be amended “by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of its members,” per Article IX, section one.

But that’s just our reading of the constitution. Maybe it’s time for an SSC ― a Student Supreme Court — to adjudicate procedural disputes, although that would probably just mean more byzantine rules that no one would understand. Still, it would be a better solution than having President Christina Paxson P’19 step in to offer an advisory opinion, as she did this year, according to UCS Vice President Sam Caplan ’22. As advocates for the student body, UCS should aim to remain independent from the influence of administration.

How can we expect UCS to govern the student body when it cannot even govern itself?

It’s unfortunate that this chaos has seemingly garnered more attention for student government than anything else they’ve done in recent years, and the attention is not about anything they’ve accomplished, but what they have failed at ― the fundamental task of running a functional election.

This is particularly embarrassing considering how obsessed UCS is with election procedures.

Of the weekly UCS general body meetings covered by The Herald this semester, at least eight discussed elections or elections procedures in some form. One three-week stretch of headlines for meeting coverage read as follows: “UCS discusses spring elections procedure and timeline,” “UCS continues discussion on spring elections procedures” and “UCS eliminates official student group endorsements for spring elections.”

UCS’s fixation on sorting out its own internal incompetencies distracts the group from its job: helping undergraduate students.

Can UCS ever go beyond creating, modifying and getting lost in its own tangle of rules? Or is it a hopeless project? When the runoff is over and the dust settles, it will be up to new leadership to prove that it isn’t.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s Editorial Page Board. This editorial was written by its editor Johnny Ren ’23 and members Catherine Healy ’22, Caroline Nash ’22.5, Augustus Bayard ’24, Devan Paul ’24 and Kate Waisel ’24.

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