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On the eve of voting, the Harvard Undergraduate Council’s Election Commission reinstated a UC presidential ticket it had disbanded just days before for early campaigning and violating the spirit of the election.
The Commission reinstated the ticket of Esther J. Xiang ’23 for UC president and David Y. Zhang ’23 for vice president late Tuesday night after the Dean of Students Office intervened in the situation. Amid the controversy, the Commission delayed the start of the campaign period from Monday to Wednesday, and pushed the opening of voting from Wednesday to Thursday.
The initial complaint against the ticket was made by UC Parliamentarian and Dunster House Representative Samuel H. Taylor ’24 on Nov. 1.
Taylor said in an interview that he felt it was “necessary” to file a complaint after he became aware of “significant” rules violations by Xiang and Zhang that “imperiled the ability of the UC to have a free and fair presidential election.”
“Esther and David have violated rules around early campaigning, early team-building, and ethical conduct. They have also seriously undermined the spirit of the election,” Taylor wrote in his letter of complaint to the Election Commission, a redacted version of which he provided to The Crimson.
The letter includes accounts from freshmen on the Council, fellow presidential ticket Ivor K. Zimmerman ’23 and Joy Y. Lin ’23, previous Election Commission chair Desiree A. Rickett ’24, and two prospective running mates of presidential candidate Nicholas J. Brennan ’23. The allegations include that Xiang and Zhang campaigned early, manipulated freshmen with false information, and intimidated Brennan’s prospective running mates.
The Election Commission reviewed the evidence presented in the complaint over several meetings and decided to disband the ticket Nov. 4, the Commission wrote in an emailed statement Wednesday.
“The initial evidence provided to us revealed that the ticket had broken rules surrounding early campaigning. Specifically, rules 4.1 & 4.8. The Commission elected to remedy the issue via section 8.7 of the rules,” the Commission wrote.
Sections 4.1 and 4.8 of the UC election rules state that candidates cannot begin campaigning until 30 days before the start of the election. Section 8.7 allows the Election Commission to dissolve campaigns that have “committed serious rules violation prior to the beginning of the preparation period.”
In an interview with The Crimson, Xiang and Zhang denied the allegations of intimidation, and said the early campaigning violations stemmed from a new rule that the Commision should not have applied retroactively.
After Xiang and Zhang appealed, the Commission affirmed its decision to dissolve their ticket, but allowed the candidates to run on separate ballots, per the Commission’s statement to The Crimson. Xiang then launched a campaign with LyLena D. Estabine ’24, while Zhang decided not to participate in the election.
In the meantime, Xiang and Zhang also reached out to the Dean of Students Office, claiming that their ticket was unfairly disbanded.
“We reached out to the DSO because we felt that the appeal process was unfair. Given that we were dissolved based on evidence [the Election Commission] didn’t share with us, we could not have possibly defended ourselves,” Xiang and Zhang wrote in an emailed statement Thursday.
The pair met with the DSO, and the DSO then communicated with the Election Commission, according to Xiang and Zhang.
“DSO and the Election Commission agreed the process was unfair and agreed to do it again, this time using only relevant evidence,” they wrote. “By relevant, they meant ‘evidence directly related to the election process’ and they removed anything that was merely a personal attack.”
Following the exchange with the DSO, the Commission pushed back the campaign and the voting period as it reconsidered the decision. The Commission ultimately voted to reinstate Xiang and Zhang’s ticket.
Election Commission chair Camryn D. Jones ’22 wrote in an email that “in no way did the DSO force our hand in the decision to reinstate the ticket,” and instead provided “clarification” about the types of issues the Commission is permitted to rule on.
The DSO informed the Commission it could only rule on campaign violations, not allegations regarding the spirit of the election, because the latter are assessments of character or subjects of rumors, according to a person with direct knowledge whom The Crimson granted anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
Several UC members expressed concerns about the DSO’s involvement in the decision to reinstate the ticket.
“It’s an abrogation of the integrity of this election,” Taylor wrote in a text message. “There is thorough evidence that their ticket violated several election rules, as has been acknowledged by many people. Despite this, their ticket will face no consequences.”
“This will entrench the advantages that candidates get for cheating the rules, and incentivise candidates to cheat in every future election,” he added.
Brennan said he is concerned about the fairness of the election process as candidates who were found to have violated campaign rules are still in the race.
“Very real rules infractions were brought up and determined by the Commission to be in violation of those rules,” Brennan said. “To see a reinstating of the ticket poses a lot of concern about the fairness and spirit of this election.”
Pforzheimer House Representative Jane J. Oh ’24 — who said she contributed evidence to the initial complaint against Xiang and Zhang — said she is frustrated the DSO did not reach out to her after it intervened in the process.
“They don’t feel the need to meet up with us or anything like that,” she said, adding that she believes the DSO saw the situation as merely interpersonal conflicts amongst the candidates and complainants.
College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement Thursday that the DSO intervened per the Commission’s request.
“The DSO, as Student Organization Discipline Process overseers, have and will get involved in the process of student organizations when concerns are raised to them that those processes are operating unfairly,” Dane wrote.
“Nothing in the rules states that the DSO needs to inform [the complainant] of anything,” she added.
Following the reinstatement, Estabine, whom Xiang launched a campaign with after her ticket with Zhang was disbanded, stepped down from the election and chose to support the Xiang-Zhang campaign, according to Xiang and Zhang.
Voting opened Thursday at noon, but had to be restarted at 5:30 p.m. due to user interface issues on the voting website.
—Staff writer Mayesha R. Soshi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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