Student elections process should be reconsidered

This week students announced their candidacy for the various elected offices of the Associated Students of Portland State University, officially launching another student government election season.

Here’s to hoping a debacle of the types that occurred in both of the past two elections doesn’t occur again. For those of you who don’t recall, here’s a little refresher course on the sordid tale of PSU’s student elections:

In the 2004 election, the student Elections Committee ruled that Progressive Slate campaign strategist Reina Abolofia was not allowed to continue campaigning for her candidates. Abolofia had constructed a campaign web site and other materials that were misleading, the committee members alleged.

Abolofia responded (rightly) by finding a lawyer, who let the university know in a letter that they had likely violated Abolofia’s free speech rights, and suggested that litigation might be on the horizon if the administration didn’t act.

The university’s response? Cancel the election. A whole day after the polls were opened, then-Vice Provost of Student Affairs Doug Samuels had the half-complete results voided, and students had to do the whole song and dance over again at the beginning of spring term, leading to confusion, poor turnout and questionable results.

Fast forward to 2005. A sunny March day in the Park Blocks, alive with political hopefuls making their campaign pitches to passersby. Then something, it’s not clear what, happened between two candidates, a bunny, and a wiener dog (yes, you read that correctly).

Student Fee Committee candidate Shannon Eikum alleged that after an encounter between her pet dachshund and Senate candidate Cassandra Fowler’s pet rabbit, Fowler had said to her, “I’ll kill you and your little fucking rat dog.” Her corroborating witnesses: her boyfriend and another candidate on her slate.

Fowler never denied the allegation but said that she was reacting to concern that the dog might harm her prey-resembling pet. It was also rather difficult to figure out exactly what any of this had to do with the election.

The Elections Committee’s response? Disqualify Fowler from candidacy. Despite an appeal to the student Judicial Board, the votes Fowler received were stricken from the record. Despite murmurs of the possibility of another Abolofia-style legal confrontation, no such challenge arose.

Considering the system for monitoring elections in place, it’s no surprise that incidents like this have happened. In fact, we would be lucky if it didn’t happen again. The Elections Committee and bylaws are full of potential for abuse, or worse, subjecting the university to serious legal liability.

To begin, all of the Elections Committee members are appointed by the ASPSU president. Though officially the committee is expected to rule even-handedly, it’s easy to see how someone could pack it full of their friends and use it as a political tool. Should a majority of the committee members be politically opposed to a candidate or group of candidates, they have the power to make those students’ lives very difficult.

It seems that once campaigning begins, the vast majority of the committee’s time is consumed by sorting out allegations of campaign rules violations. The only tools they have to encourage candidates to play by the rules, however, are requiring a candidate to stop campaigning on campus for a period of time, or disqualify a candidate altogether. Both of these sanctions, as the tales of Abolofia and Fowler demonstrate, teeter dangerously on the edge of violating one’s constitutional right to free speech. As a result, a poorly thought out committee decision could subject the university to a lawsuit.

Student control and oversight of elections is a must to ensure a student voice on campus. But it’s time to consider other methods of ensuring fair oversight of election proceedings. Perhaps third-party oversight could be brought in, or Elections Committee members could be elected at large. One thing that is certain is that the system has to change before student elections become an embarrassment that no one wants their fingerprints on.