The Columbia Elections Board imploded at the end of last semester, but its collapse might have been predestined in 1942.
The CEB’s job was to run student council elections. This meant advertising said elections, hosting debates, and dealing with campaign rule violations—things like whether candidates make Facebook posts at the wrong time and if they miss debates—for the Columbia College Student Council, the Engineering Student Council, and the General Studies Student Council.
However, the group was on the receiving end of significant criticism for much of its lifetime. In the spring of 2016, for instance, it was accused of making arbitrary decisions and failing to promote candidate registration, which contributed to student council membership remaining insular.
The barrage continued during last fall’s first-year elections, when the CEB failed to adequately engage voters. Instead of inviting students or campus media to debates via an email or a Facebook post, the CEB just posted links to the debate videos on class Facebook groups. This strategy was largely ineffective. Spectator noted that some of the videos obtained only one view by the time the voting period concluded, and fewer than five students attended the debates in person. The CEB was also accused of not sending out adequate information about how or when to vote through emails, Facebook posts, or its website.
The saga of the CEB is likely only familiar to the minority of students that eagerly follow student council news. But an elections board—the tether between student council and the wider community during election season—is crucial for making student government better. One that doesn’t work risks perpetuating much of what Columbia’s councils have long been accused of being: insular, nonrepresentative, and detached from the real needs and interests of the student body.
The CEB is by far not the only elections board that has been accused of incompetence; 71 years ago, another elections commision with a different name similarly fumbled with an elections process. The Elections Commission, as it was called then, allegedly mishandled first-year elections. The commission printed ballots with a candidate for secretary opposing a member of his own ticket for the vice presidential election (and forgot to inform voters of the mistake until after one day of voting had already elapsed). Additionally, the commission failed to teach the first-year candidates about the campaign process. “From the very first, the handling of the campaign has been so inept and sloppy,” a Spectator article from November 22, 1946 declares.
Further examination of the history of student council elections governance reveals that this sequence of elections fumbling, student media-driven criticism, and eventual collapse of the elections board has become a recurring pattern.
The CEB had a run of only four years. It was formed in 2013 to replace a board that was formed in 2005 to replace a board that was formed in the early ’90s out of a period of instability in the late ’80s to replace a board that was formed in 1942.
The Columbia Elections Commission, which emerged from the ashes of the CEB at the beginning of February, will be the latest iteration of this student-run council elections-overseeing body. And although it promises change and stability to student council elections, its predecessors did so too.
Do we have reason to believe that CEC’s future will look any different?
A position on an elections board is a bit like Columbia’s version of the professorship for Defense Against the Dark Arts—it foreshadows inevitable failure. But unlike holding a professorial position at the most acclaimed wizarding school in the world, being a member of an elections board doesn’t come with any glory. Past members have characterized the work as mundane, bureaucratic, and a huge time commitment.
As a result, Columbia elections boards over the years have struggled due to a lack of dedicated and consistent membership.
Take, for instance, the fluctuating membership of the Columbia College Elections Commission in the late ’80s and early ’90s. After first disbanding, then reinstating, and then disbanding again, only two people applied to be on a new Elections Commission.
This disinterest continued during the next few years, as the commission faced complaints about its work almost every election cycle. In 1991, CCSC struggled so hard to find people to join the newly formed Elections Commission—even after it extended the application deadlines—that it had to resort to paying students $50 to join.
Christine Jelinek, who graduated from Columbia College in 2005 and served as the chair of the Commission on Elections, Nominations, and Appointments—which replaced the 1991 Elections Commission—explains that she eventually had to resort to recruiting some friends she knew from her floor in Carman, of which she was the RA, to join the board. (Two of these women, Juliet Berman and Maxine Stachel, were bridesmaids at her wedding.)
Jelinek humorously recalls a Spectator article that then critiqued her for making CENA too insular by only appointing her friends. “The only people I could coerce were people who were friends with me!” Being on an elections board, she explains, is “not a resume builder, it’s an awful lot of work. ... It’s not really a very glamorous job. It certainly is not always fun being the rule enforcer or the rule maker.”
Last spring, in response to Spectator’s coverage, the chair of CEB Charlie Kang wrote an op-ed reflecting on the disaster of that semester’s elections. “It’s easy to think of CEB as either incompetent or dysfunctional, because we receive the most student attention when something goes wrong,” he writes, but “being on the CEB is a thankless job.”
The next semester—this past fall—Kang resigned, along with everyone else on CEB.
The undesirability of elections board positions is also in part a result of the ceaseless, often brutal, media-driven criticism members face. A Spectator newsletter from last spring was titled “The Columbia Elections Board messed up again. What happened this time?” During this election, CEB departed from its own precedent in calculating point deductions, allowing two ESC candidates to win their positions despite their violation of campaign rules. Other Spectator coverage has used similarly demeaning language: “incapable,” “disorganized,” and “lacking transparency.”
But another source of the continual failure of election boards is that they are often constructed around overly complicated rules that are irregularly adhered to and enforced, making the boards an easy target for criticism in this vein.
Jonathan Hunt-Glassman, who served as chair of the Elections Board that replaced CENA in 2006, remembers his time as chair as being defined by an excessive number of unnecessary rules. His elections board had a nine-page long list of rules concerning everything—from how and when students can start campaigning on Facebook to how many posters candidates can put up to attendance at “candidate forums.” Similarly, the Elections Commission in the late ’80s forbade interest groups from endorsing candidates and punished students for submitting posters for approval after a specified deadline. And last year, CEB penalized candidates for being endorsed by current council representatives, even if there was no evidence they sought out the endorsements.
Overly convoluted rules inevitably become a scourge for the boards when it comes to actually enforcing them. Members of the CCSC criticized the chair of the Elections Commission in 1988 for unevenly imposing poster regulations. The chair allowed two candidates to submit their posters for approval after the commission deadline. In past years, candidates would have been expelled. In the aforementioned ESC elections from last spring, the CEB divided point deductions among candidates rather than giving each member full-point deductions for promoting endorsements from current council members. This decision instigated frustration because it was inconsistent with those of previous years.
In 2013, the board that Hunt-Glassman established disintegrated, which he speculates is in part because of how time-consuming and distracting the extensive rules and regulations were. He explained that they spent “less time really evaluating whether all of the elections rules actually needed to be in place.”
Ultimately, the most important task the board is charged with is ensuring that students engage with student councils during election season—that they run for positions, pay attention to campaigns, and vote. This means that elections boards are tasked with trying to overcome something that seems just as deep-rooted and inevitable as election board fumbling: student apathy.
Much of what the CEB was criticized for was its underpromotion of elections. Spectator coverage from spring 2016 noted that at the time of publication, four of the 12 elected positions on GSSC were uncontested, and four had no candidates at all. This was connected to the fact that the CEB failed to use the listserv to notify students about registration.
A 2002 Spectator staff editorial makes a similar argument—contending that CENA, the board at the time, needed to take elections seriously in order for students to do the same. The editorial specifically references the “tragicomic proportions” that the year’s debate—promoted as “The Annual CENA/CCSC Election GetDown, Debate and Talent Show”—took on.
When the work of fixing the problem of student apathy is incorporated into an evaluation of the board, it seems inevitable that it will fall short. Indeed, the editorial eventually concedes that “Student apathy is not CENA’s fault,” but still ends with the claim that,“Try as they might, the commission is not doing anything to solve the problem, either.”
Hunt-Glassman is skeptical of this easy blaming. He holds that apathy for student council is deeply-rooted and that the most the board can do is “move those numbers marginally.”
So, is the cyclical rise and fall of boards inevitable or can it be ceased? Perhaps, the new group should look across the street for an answer. Unlike Columbia College, School of Engineering, and General Studies, Barnard’s Student Government Association does not have the same tumultuous history with its election processes. In fact, Barnard SGA considered joining the CEB, but reversed the decision after hearing about the issues that plagued Columbia’s spring 2016 elections.
The most prominent difference in election board structures is that Barnard’s is composed of only internal SGA members: a senior representative to the Board of Trustees, a junior representative to the Board of Trustees, the senior class president, a representative to the University Senate, and the SGA president. Instead of searching within the small pool of Columbia students who happen to be fascinated enough by student elections to run them, SGA designates this task to people who have preexisting council responsibilities.
Columbia College elections boards, on the other hand, have traditionally been completely independent from student council—barring minor exceptions such as a brief CCSC oversight committee for a few months in 1988.
Jessica Reich, who sits on SGA’s representative council as the senior representative to the Board of Trustees and is also SGA’s election commission chair, explains that this configuration solves all the problems that have plagued Columbia’s commissions: the problem of maintaining a consistent membership, maintaining consistent rules, and not paying enough attention to elections advertising.
Reich explains that since the commission is always intertwined with SGA—which does not face the risk of collapse—the body is able to maintain institutional memory. It can spend a lot of time advertising instead of building new rules or rule enforcement frameworks—or sometimes even new commissions—from scratch. Last year, the commission emailed every Barnard club, posted a timeline of events on every SGA email sent to the student body, and gave out fliers during the activities fair. This year, it also filmed promotional videos with SGA seniors about why they got involved. Reich notes that the first-year 2017 class council elections had a record-breaking 60 percent voter turnout rate.
However, the last three spring CCSC elections have had higher turnouts than SGA’s spring elections, averaging at 45 percent, suggesting that student apathy isn’t solely tied to the performance of the elections board.
The new CEC structurally resembles Barnard’s election commission more than it does any of its predecessors. While the CEB was comprised of students who did not sit on any council, the CEC will be made up of seniors from Columbia College Student Council and Engineering Student Council, in addition to two external members who will occupy the commissioner and vice-commissioner positions.
The CEC’s decision to include sitting council members is not without controversy—keeping it completely independent, after all, was meant to ensure objective rulings. Being an independent third-party group was crucial for Jelinek. “I really believe that student government elections gain a lot of legitimacy from having an independent elections governing board,” she tells me.
And in the past, SGA’s current configuration has been criticized for being too intertwined with SGA in a way that potentially leads to insularity and bias.
As the only two external members of the commission, Joshua Burton and Jason Mares, the new commissioner and vice-commissioner respectively, acknowledge the importance of institutional memory to institutional longevity, but see their role as vitally important to ensuring that the student council is not insular. Among other things, they will be responsible for preventing potential biases for certain candidates from seeping into the election process.
The CEC’s Planning Committee—which is composed of its internal student council members, who by nature of having run for elected positions last year were firsthand witnesses to the shortcomings of the CEB—feels optimistic about the future of elections at Columbia. Nicole Allicock, CCSC’s current vice president of policy and a senior council member on CEC, has run for and won positions on the council’s Executive Board twice. She explains that she was the person with listserv access for people to email about elections, “however, it makes absolutely no sense for me to be the person doing that, but there was no accountability or communication with the elections board side of how to deal with those kinds of issues.”
In theory, the CEC echoes a lot of what makes SGA work. Allicock explains that the new commission will take three major steps to solve the problems that have plagued previous boards. One: discard the unnecessary and ambiguous rules. Two: enlarge the board to eight members instead of CEB’s five members in order to prevent a small number of people from bearing the brunt of the entire elections process. The CEC has also decided to partner with Spectator to shoulder the responsibility of hosting and conducting the candidate debates. Three: involve senior council members to establish consistent membership.
Nathan Rosin, the current president of CCSC, brightly concludes: “We will continue to learn from our mistakes, take what we did well, and then if there’s anything that wasn’t particularly as good as we might have wanted, we’ll improve on that for next time. Using that we hope to create a pretty flourishing elections body moving forward.”
His optimism reminds me, tonally, of the way each new elections board structure is introduced at the start of every regeneration. And although the CEC is significantly structurally different from previous versions of the body, it still sits atop an unsteady history.
All of which is to say: We’ll see how the CEC fares this spring.