Last Thursday, the Columbia Elections Commission notified University Senator-elect Heven Haile, CC ’21, that someone had reported her for publicizing a false endorsement from the Columbia University Mental Health Task Force, an offense that could be ruled as a major rules violation according to election policies.
With only an hour left until the defense deadline—students were permitted to submit rules violations until an hour after voting closed—Haile had little time to prepare her response.
Even after her defense, CEC, an organization of seniors that upholds and enforces the policies and rules during council elections, deemed the endorsement “flimsy, light, and unsubstantiated,” as she had only received the support of one co-chair of the organization.
Haile appealed the ruling that Friday, following which CEC reversed its decision. Its explanation stated that it had no jurisdiction in deciding the legitimacy of the endorsement, because the MHTF is an unrecognized student group that does not abide by official Columbia policies for student organizations.
In Haile’s appeal, submitted after the deadline, she also asked the commission to review evidence that she believed should warrant the disqualification of VP of Policy-elect Henry Feldman, CC ’21. After receiving no response from CEC regarding a potential investigation, Haile made a public Facebook post on Saturday night wherein she alleged that Feldman’s “submission of this false violation is an attack on my character.” Haile also claimed that Feldman’s reporting was intentionally false and, as she was the only black woman running in the Senate race, racist and misogynistic.
She and three other council members called for the impeachment of Feldman at the CCSC meeting the following Sunday, but the vote did not pass, and the four members resigned. At this time, Haile told Spectator that she remained unaware of any investigation into her claims against Feldman.
“If a candidate is charged of discrimination, it shouldn’t matter if it is passed the deadline. He shouldn’t be representing Columbia and having to work with vocal black women, if this is how he’s going to treat us,” Haile said.
In most cases, candidates are not privy to the CEC’s rationale or procedures when they respond to rules violations. When a candidate issues an appeal, it is also unclear why the evidence submitted may or may not be sufficient in the face of a violation. While the CEC issued a detailed explanation of the committee’s decision in the response to Haile’s defense due to her public Facebook post detailing her appeal against Feldman, most candidates are not able to access information on the committee’s rationale when they submit an appeal, nor are they guaranteed an explanation of the final decision.
“Because of the short time span that we have, we can’t afford to give every candidate their own information. … The information is provided upon request because not all rules violations are worthy of having further elaboration—that is a courtesy that is given by the CEC,” Mares said.
While Haile specifically highlighted the power dynamic that exists between black women and white men in elections, other candidates emphasized that the lack of clarity in the way CEC policy violations are handled creates an environment where allegations feel personal, tensions build, and relationships can be severed. Despite the fact that the body is supposed to be collaborative, council members cited that this can mean a lack of cohesion within the council.
“Yes, of course there’s always tension, but I feel as if there’s a lot more personal investment in the kind of tension there is versus just disagreeing with each other on one point,” Gender and Sexuality Representative Kwolanne Felix, CC ’22, said. “I can definitely see it being more so disagreeing becoming ad hominem attacks.”
There were over 30 violations filed this semester, though the defendants in only 16 of them were found guilty. Approximately half of the violations filed this election cycle were overturned, just as Haile’s was.
Feldman maintained that his filing the report had nothing to do with Haile’s identity. In an interview with Spectator, he emphasized that his reason to submit the violation was in no way personal, and was informed by the bylaws.
“The purpose of the rules violation process being anonymous is that so the Columbia Elections Commission can uphold its rules with the help of everybody involved in the race,” he said. “So I promise that this was not personal for me at all. … I think it’s unfortunate that it did become personal.”
Four days after Haile’s resignation, CEC Commissioner Jason Mares, CC ’20, posted a public statement, without review from the rest of the committee, on the CEC’s Facebook page that claimed the commission had seriously investigated allegations of discrimination brought forward by Haile. It stated that Haile’s only evidence for racial discrimination was the fact that the person who reported this violation was not running against her.
The next day, CEC took down the post and issued a response saying Mares’ statement “can not fully present an objective perspective” due to its decision not to name Feldman and only discuss what Haile had done—Mares had chosen to keep Feldman anonymous to “prevent possible harassment by anyone in the general student body.”
In an interview with Spectator, Mares maintained the objectivity of the CEC in evaluating rules violations.
“Every member of the CEC is committed to being fair and neutral in every single aspect. The criticisms that they receive as being unfair might be merited to a degree, but I think overall the CEC is a neutral body. If any mistake must take place, then it it a mistake on our part and we are sorry to any candidate that has felt an unfair burden,” Mares said.
The CEC’s Policies and Rules packet—a nearly eight-page-long document explaining rules and possible violations by candidates during elections—is presented by the commission in a short meeting to candidates, who are encouraged to read the document themselves.
Though it seems to outline official and hard regulations that candidates must follow, the document seems to allow significant room for flexibility with CEC in adjudicating what could constitute a violation and how candidates might be penalized. For example, many issues that were listed as major violations in the packet were found as “minor violations” for candidates when CEC officially announced its decisions.
“The rules packet is full of what seems like hard and fast rules at first, but then when you get into the specifics of campaigning, you realize that there’s never going to be a situation with facts that exactly lined up to what the Rules packet seems to assume will happen,” Ramsay Eyre, CC ’21, said.
In the past, voting deductions had been found to have little effect on the outcome of elections. As a result, the minor and major deductions were doubled this year to deduct five and 10 percent respectively. In races between two or more people, those percentages are divided among the number of candidates.
The deadline to submit a violation against a candidate is just one hour after voting closes. When a student is accused of a violation, they have until the defense deadline to present evidence to inform the CEC’s decision on the violation deductions. According to candidate for VP of Campus Life, Eva Bogomilova, CC ’22, she has learned to anticipate the “strategy” of submitting last-minute violations.
For Felix, the short timeline created significant stress during the rush to gather evidence and submit it before the period closed.
“My defense [was] due an hour after the violation is in and that was really distressful. I was able to do so but it’s within a really tight turnaround time.”
Further, Ramsay Eyre, University Senator-elect and current Class of 2021 representative, said that the lack of transparency around evidence submitted for rules violations exacerbates candidates’ inability to respond to allegations. He was accused and initially found guilty of violating rules that prohibit candidates from liking or reacting to endorsements of social media, but exonerated after he appealed the decision. In his appeal, Eyre cited that others had similarly reacted on social media, yet not been penalized.
Ultimately, Eyre was found guilty of flyering in prohibited locations, but CEC incorrectly posted that he had been found guilty when final decisions were announced.
“It’s unclear as to what the process was in reaching that preliminary decision, so then in writing an appeal, it’s hard to know what is actually required of you beyond what you have already given,” Eyre said.
As an apolitical body, the CEC also cannot act on behalf of any candidate. This year, University Senator Zoha Qamar, SEAS ’19, resigned from her position on the CEC before candidate registration opened. While her name was removed from the Rules packet, there was no official announcement of her departure, and her name remains on the list of commission members. These gaps in communication make it difficult for students to access information in a timely matter.
“We know who is in [the CEC], but we don’t know who is responding or what is occurring. I don’t know if you could ask them [for an explanation of their decision]. ... You can’t have a one-on-one conversation. Everything is through text. I wish the CEC could have more of an interaction with the candidate because to them it’s just another Google form that they have to review,” CCSC President-elect Patricia Granda-Malaver, CC ’20, said.
For candidates like Haile, the lack of transparency surrounding elections presents a larger issue in the retention of candidates. While she has sought to bridge the disconnect between marginalized communities and the council in her role as race and ethnicity representative, she highlighted the challenge of being confronted with “CCSC’s historically alienating relationship with black people.”
“There is a reason why black people are being pushed out of CCSC. If we get so much pushback and resistance during the election process, we are not going to want to continue and stay on CCSC.” Haile said.