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Student Government Association election reform act reducing campaign timelines draws ire of candidates

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sga11/2/21

Student Government Association Representative Taylor Broadbent speaks on CR-106-02.

A recently rediscovered Student Government Association act has shifted the campaign period from several weeks to 10 days, which several candidates said could have a heavy impact on future elections.

In October 2020, the SGA Undergraduate Student Congress passed “True Democracy Now," which is a series of election reform bills that allows for more  “open and fair elections” by promoting candidate safety and voter accessibility. Among these was the Uniform Campaigning Act, which slashed campaign periods by about half to create equitable timelines for all candidates.

Before the passage of the bill, SGA Election Commissioner Isaac Kabrick said candidates could start campaigning after attending one of four mandatory meetings held during the third week before elections. This meant a candidate who attended a Monday meeting would have three more days to campaign than a candidate who attended a Thursday meeting.

Kabrick, a civil engineering and public and nonprofit administration senior, said the act wasn’t written to be added to the SGA code annotated, which includes all student government laws. Though the legislation was passed in time to be implemented for spring SGA elections, Kabrick said election timelines weren’t shifted, likely because the previous election commissioner was unaware of the new rule.

Before rediscovering the Uniform Campaigning Act, Kabrick said he was also under the impression candidates would get at least two weeks and likely part of a third week to campaign. He found the bill on Oct. 10 while preparing the campaign rules guide for this semester and quickly realized timelines for the upcoming elections needed to be condensed. He sought advice from SGA general counsel Nick Hazelrigg, who released an opinion shortly after.

“Candidates were understandably frustrated because it was a change of plans, it was a change from the status quo,” Kabrick said. “I admit that I was probably a little frustrated, too, because changing plans is hard. But this is what congress, (and) this is what the legislature wanted us to do. And so my job in the judiciary is to make sure that the rules are getting enforced as written and as intended.”

Shrey Kathuria, a community health pre-med freshman running to be a University College representative, said he found out about the stricter time constraints at a mandatory candidate meeting Oct. 12. He said he was stunned, as he didn’t know how to run a campaign in less than two weeks, especially because he has one of the largest constituencies.

University College has 1,904 students, and Kathuria said he predicted he could only meet 200 to 300 people in the span of 10 days.

“There’s no way we can muster a good turnout if we only have 10 days to campaign, because there’s probably 60, 70 percent of the student body that doesn’t even know we have SGA elections,” Kathuria said.

Public relations pre-law junior and SGA President-elect Zack Lissau said when he first learned he had 10 days to campaign for president during a candidate meeting, his reaction was “What the heck?”

Lissau said he and his opponent, international studies and classical studies junior Angelora Castellano, were both taken aback. The two penned a letter expressing frustration about the change, which Lissau said was well-received by SGA leadership.

While there were learning curves to navigate initially, Lissau said he, his running-mate — marketing pre-law junior Denzel Akuffo — and his campaign team adjusted to the new time constraints effectively. 

“Luckily, we were able to see this obstacle as a learning opportunity,” Lissau said. “And we took it by storm. And, like I said before, we were lucky enough to be able to hit the ground running as soon as we could, and that was really all that it was was — just looking at, obviously, the current circumstances and saying, ‘Okay, how can we move the needle forward?’”

Kabrick said all campaign rules were publicly available before the candidate meetings, and they are supposed to familiarize themselves with those. He also acknowledged the stresses the new timeline might elicit. 

“It feels unexpected, and I think ... that's certainly had an impact on candidates’ ability to share their message,” Kabrick said.

Lissau said he condensed his campaign by focusing on educating students about what student government is and tried to motivate them enough to vote.

Even with a condensed timeline, Lissau said his campaign was successful in reaching students, citing their Coffee with the Candidates events, Q&A sessions on Instagram and the “very vibrant audience” that attended the SGA presidential and vice-presidential debates.

Kathuria’s team tried to cope with the time constraints by being active on social media and doing some informal campaigning outside the 10-day window, he said.

According to the fall 2021 election report, Kathuria and Christian Binger tied for the seventh University College representative position, each earning 244 votes. Kathuria said he found out he was up for a runoff election at around 9:45 p.m. on Nov. 3 and had only six days of campaigning afterward. 

Kathuria said he’s concerned about students’ awareness surrounding the occurrence of congressional runoff elections, but he hopes to have a greater voter turnout than he did in the first election.

Polls for congressional runoff elections are open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Nov. 9, and students can vote on Engage

Kathuria said he’s worried a shorter timeline might lessen student awareness of future elections, impacting voter turnout. Having less time to campaign might also dissuade some students from running, which could exacerbate the vacant-seat problem that already exists in SGA, Kathuria said. 

Kabrick said he understands concern about the Uniform Campaigning Act limiting voter turnout, as some groups only meet biweekly and might not meet when candidates are campaigning. However, he said there was great turnout this election cycle, with about 3,400 people voting in the presidential election, which he said is about a 50 percent increase from last year

Increased voter turnout could be caused by a variety of reasons, so Kabrick said he’s still concerned the legislation is hindering candidates’ ability to meet students and organizations. He said he looks forward to discussing the election timeframe further with the legislature.

Kabrick said this election is the first true test of the True Democracy Now bill package, and his office will be evaluating which rules worked well and making suggestions for changes. 

The SGA code annotated doesn’t offer guidance for congressional runoffs, which Kabrick said he also hopes to address. He said the code does give an explicit timeline for presidential runoffs, so he based the congressional runoff timeline off that, but he hopes for clearer guidance from the legislature in coming months.

Lissau said the shifted timeline has the ability to change the trajectory of future elections, as campaigns have to hit the ground running faster than they did in the past. He plans to reevaluate campaign rules and find a better solution for future candidates. 

“This wasn't the worst-case scenario, this is just an area of opportunity for us to really assess and look into ‘How can we do this differently?’” Lissau said.

senior news reporter

Ari Fife is a senior news reporter and a senior journalism major minoring in international studies and political science. Previously, she served as a summer editor-in-chief, news managing editor, assistant news managing editor and a senior news reporter.

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