A Matter of Elections

Student government needs clearer, consistent rules and procedures governing its elections process.

A campaign move highlighted in last week’s editorial makes this evident. The tactic in question was a Facebook post by senator Erica McKay encouraging students in uncontested voting districts to instead identify under the College of Business, a contested district, so they could vote for her. The post was listed under public “Montana State University” groups, including those for the class of 2014, film, architecture and others.

McKay has since called her post naive, saying she wasn’t attempting to manipulate the system but thought students in those colleges should have an opportunity to make their vote count in a competitive race. She easily won the CoB district, tallying 141 votes, while the other winner, Josh Stevens, garnered 88.

We highlighted the post not to attack McKay’s intentions or integrity, but to call attention to a campaign effort that seems ethically ambiguous within the current elections structure. Moreover, the incident reveals gaps in that structure which ASMSU’s new senate must address.

Senators took a big step in changing the senate’s representational structure last year from a long-standing model based on living situation to one using college affiliation. The logic was that students have a stronger attachment to classmates than neighbors, former ASMSU president Blake Bjornson said last fall. The new districts would better reflect the diversity of the student body, resulting in better representation, higher senator engagement and increased voter interest.

Though voter turnout hasn’t spiked as a result, many senators do seem invested in the concept of representation by college, and the inclusion of students from smaller campus sectors has brought much-needed diversity of perspectives to floor debates.

In this vein, the section 502-1 of the current ASMSU Bylaws states, “Senators shall be elected by and represent either the students at large or the students of the college in which they are enrolled”. Additionally, section 500-2 requires that “only students who have paid the Student Activity Fee and are enrolled in an academic college may vote for candidates to represent that college.” This language makes clear the spirit of the system: Senators should be elected by and represent the students in their college.

The online ballot, however, relies on voters to self-declare their college affiliation — despite a clause in the bylaws requiring computer verification of college membership (section 500-2). According to Elections Committee chair Eric Vann, elections policy does not prohibit voting outside one’s college, nor do campaign rules prohibit candidates’ solicitation of such behavior.

Most students probably don’t realize this or, if they do, identify with their college because of interest or perceived duty. Regardless, it is safe to say the ability to vote for candidates outside one’s district constitutes a kind of privileged information. McKay’s post took advantage of that, whether intentionally or not.

ASMSU could decide cross-college voting is acceptable or even — in certain instances —  desirable. Doing so would seem to require a modification of the elections policy in the bylaws, which are currently undergoing a comprehensive revision anyway. Moreover, ASMSU must communicate those voting parameters to the voters so as to avoid the dubious situation just described.

A better path, though, would be to embrace the spirit of the college representational system — a system that can make the senate more dynamic and more relevant. Vann said he intends to examine the ballot’s web interface to see if the software can automatically assign voters with colleges through their GID. If that is not possible, the elections committee should consider actively discouraging voters from district misidentification and/or updating campaign rules to prohibit candidates’ encouraging of it.

Of course, these problems are not easily foreseeable. When campaigns first went digital, ASMSU likely did not foresee a presidential candidate using www.asmsuelections.com as his campaign website, as now-senator John Stiles did last spring. At that time, then-president Bjornson and the former elections chair said ASMSU policy did not prohibit the tactic (see “Social Media Driving Campaign Efforts,” MSU Exponent, 2/9/12). This fall’s campaign rules now prohibit the use of the ASMSU name “in the creation of any social media, website, etc.”

While that clause was added, the clause requiring pre-approval by the elections chair of all printed campaign materials was dropped (the bylaws section 500-6-1 still requires it). Though the approval system is an intensive approach to oversight, it might be helpful when dealing with both candidates who are unfamiliar with election processes and guidelines that are ambiguous or incomplete.

But even if ASMSU thinks the candidates don’t require that level of attention, their elections processes certainly do.