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Lois Wu / For Spectator

Elections for Barnard’s Student Government Association are quickly approaching once again. After many years of participating in SGA, I finally get to enjoy the campaign season. I get to click “Going” to campaign events on Facebook, ask questions at the Candidates Forum, and support the people I would love to see take on larger roles in our community. For someone who loves Barnard and SGA, it’s all very exciting.

At the same time, however, I find myself concerned once again with the structure of SGA’s Election Commission—the body that oversees the organization’s elections. The Commission is comprised of five members, all of whom hold high-level positions within the organization: the Senior Representative to the Board of Trustees, the Junior Representative to the Board of Trustees, the University Senator, and the SGA President. The Senior Class President was added to the Commission last year.

I was on the Commission for a year and a half, a requirement for my position as Barnard’s University Senator (May 2014 - Dec. 2015). However, an incident occurred during the 2015 elections that signaled to me that the Election Commission was fundamentally flawed. I learned that the commissioners are too close and involved in SGA to properly run its elections.

Seemingly overnight, the Election Commission received multiple violations claims positing that a candidate during the 2015 elections had violated SGA’s Election Guidelines. Voting week had already begun, and we were concerned that these allegations would influence the decisions of even more students. In a hurry to address the issue, the Commission organized a late-night meeting. Sitting on the SGA President’s bedroom floor, we walked through the situation at hand. However, we had no guidelines for sanctions, no institutional memory, and no system to pass down previous decisions. It took us hours to come to a consensus and vote. In the end, we voted to disqualify the candidate. At the time, the violation seemed too significant to ignore—we believed that it threatened the fairness of the election, as well as its outcome.

This was almost two years ago, but I’ve thought over this situation again and again. I can only speak for myself and how I felt making this decision, but what I can say is that all of the commissioners knew the candidate very well. We had all worked with her on SGA’s Representative Council for the entirety of the academic year. Because of this, I felt immense pressure to not be “too soft” on the candidate. My relationship with her made it too difficult to remain impartial when adjudicating her violation. Due to our positions on Representative Council, we also knew that other candidates were nervous about potentially working with this candidate.

There is a “safety check” in place that is intended to address issues of bias: A member from the Barnard Honor Board is informally a part of the Commission (though this isn’t even mentioned in the Election Guidelines) and is supposed to handle all investigations. However, during my tenure, the Honor Board member played a very small role. She did not take the lead on the investigation; she simply approved everything we did via email. She also wasn’t even available to come to our meetings, so we never received her input during the adjudication process. Even then, however, I’m not sure her advice would have made a big difference; in the end, the commissioners were the ones casting the votes.

Before I left my position to study abroad in the spring of 2016, I tried to do something about the Elections Commission. I thought that Constitutional Review—which only happens every four years—would be a perfect opportunity. I submitted a proposal for review and advocated multiple times that we set up a new system. However, I was disappointed to learn that the Senior Class President’s addition to the Commission was the only change made.

As I imagined it in my proposal, the Election Commission would still be under the auspices of SGA. However, its members would not be allowed to serve in other positions on SGA during their tenure—this would include everything from the Representative Council to any SGA committee. I believe that this would help decrease conflicts of interest, because commissioners wouldn’t develop the close working relationships with other members of the organization as they do now. And if a commissioner did know a candidate, there would be a system in place to replace them. The commissioners would recuse themselves and other members from a pool would be selected to serve.

Furthermore, I believe that this would be more effective, as the sole purpose of the Commission would be to administer elections. During my tenure, it felt like we never spent adequate time advertising SGA’s potential for change or recruiting candidates. Instead, it was a constant cycle of elections, Senate, and SGA. We would end up with multiple uncontested elections and vacancies that would end up being filled by appointments the following semester. This year, only a single student is running for SGA President; fortunately, she’s more than qualified for the job.

Some have floated the idea of SGA joining the Columbia Elections Board, but I think that it’s important for Barnard to retain authority over its elections. Another idea I’ve heard is that Barnard should create an independent board (similar to the Columbia Elections Board) to handle the elections for SGA, McAC, and GBB—the three organizations that comprise the Student Leadership Collective. If we could get student leaders from all three organizations on board, I think that this would be a worthwhile avenue to explore.

I understand that it can be a laborious task to build the institutional framework for something like this. However, SGA needs to consider that the Election Commission in its current form is not the best option. It poses a serious conflict of interest for an organization that purports to “ensure responsible self-government [...] through fair and transparent elections.” I hope that this starts the conversation again.

The author previously served as Barnard’s University Senator and SGA Election Commissioner from Sep. 2014 to Dec. 2015. Now as a spring-semester senior, she is insignificant, but loving it. 

To respond to this, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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