Alleviating Campaign Fears

Reforms of the UC’s election commission are desperately needed

Two far-from-seamless Undergraduate Council elections marked this past fall. The general election was marred by complaints of disenfranchisement, and the presidential election by the draconian reinterpretation of election bylaws by the council’s Election Commission. It is clear that this past semester’s commission has not served voters or candidates very well. When Commission Chair David I. Monteiro ’04 submits his recap of fall elections in the next few weeks, the council’s new leadership should use these election fiascoes as an opportunity to reevaluate both the rules governing elections and the commission’s operation.

First and foremost, the council must ensure that the commission is honest in all its actions. With mere hours left to vote in the presidential elections, the commission sent e-mails to candidates stating that results would be delayed, because the election was “exceedingly close.” These e-mails may have sparked a flurry of last minute voting, but results indicated that Rohit Chopra ’04 had swamped opponents by a margin unprecedented in previous years’ elections. Clearly, then, the commission’s email was dishonest.

Besides being honest, the commission can better serve voters and candidates by taking on a higher profile role as a source of information during campaigns. The commission should inform voters of the logistics of voting, freeing up campaigns to take on more substantial platforms. Similarly, the commission should provide voters with basic candidate platform information. The commission could easily compile candidates’ stances on major campaign issues and publish them in some public domain accessible to all voters—the commission’s web site, for example. A single source of information on substantive issues could dramatically transform the nature of campaigns; with voters better informed, candidates could concentrate more energy on debating the issues, rather than garnering name recognition with meaningless fliers.

In addition to keeping voters informed, the commission must set ground rules for candidates well before campaigns are under way. The commission failed to do this in the December presidential elections: it penalized the campaign of David M. Darst ’04 for inappropriately gathering signatures, but the violation occurred before the commission’s rules had been finalized. The commission must publish the rules governing elections on its website early in the year so that they are readily available to candidates and the general public.

These fundamental changes in the role of the commission, however, do not alone ensure fairer elections for candidates and voters. The myriad of arbitrary campaign restrictions includes ridiculous creations that are subject to the interpretive whims of the commission, and they are in desperate need of change.

This fall, for example, Monteiro forbid candidates from communicating with the press before official campaigning began, based on an existing rule prohibiting “broadly public” candidacy statements. But council members were able to talk with the press about issues, so in effect, this restriction prevented outsider candidates from communicating with voters. All candidates should be free to announce their intentions whenever they see fit, and the council must revise its bylaws to give everyone this freedom, as well as eliminate the potential for future drastic reinterpretations.

The council must also lift the ban on negative campaigning. Candidates should feel free to scrutinize one another’s platforms and council history, making for a more lively political debate. To this end, candidates should also have more time to campaign officially and more money to spend on these campaigns. Current restrictions consign candidates to pursuing quick and cheap strategies of name recognition such as saturating the campus with fliers. With changes to the bylaws, candidates could have more time and resources to tackle the issues that matter to voters.

Given these expansions in the role of commission and the scope of campaigns, the council must also give the commission sufficient time to do its job properly. Among other major failures the past year, former council president Sujean S. Lee ’03 and the council’s executive board appointed a commission only weeks before the start of elections—causing frustrating delays in voting and rushing Monteiro’s commission.

The abysmal circumstances surrounding elections this fall can be easily prevented in the future, with a little more foresight from council leadership, and with serious reevaluation of election bylaws. Reforms would set clearer and fairer guidelines for candidates and would provide voters with more vibrant and informative campaigns.