From the Community | Election reform: good intentions but questionable execution

Recently, the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) has gone through another election cycle. The students of Stanford elected a new ASSU President and Vice President and also voted in the Undergraduate Senate elections or in the Graduate Student Council elections. Although there was an allegation that one of the candidates violated the campaign finance rules, overall the elections went smoothly and over 4000 students voted.

As we’re processing the outcomes of these elections and waiting for the new legislature and executives to come in, the “lame duck” legislature has taken it upon itself to review the rules that prescribe how elections are being run. We generally encourage the legislature to revisit its bylaws from time to time and consider how they can be improved to secure the democratic process. As two current or former members of the Constitutional Council, we have some concerns, however, about the speed with which this is happening, and the possible implications of specific implementations in the new bylaws. One example pertains to the certification of elections.

Student leaders should be representative of the democratic will of the student body and incumbent leaders should not be able to prevent, delay or remove newly elected leaders. With the thought of January 6th in mind, we have all recently experienced how uncertainty about electoral processes can lead to disarray and outright attempts to subvert the democratic will. Unfortunately, the ASSU has its own history when it comes to certification of elections. We would like to take the reader back to the 2004 ASSU election.

That year, the Undergraduate Senate refused to certify the results of the ASSU presidential election in which the top candidate won by more than 300 votes. Instead, the Undergraduate Senate delayed the Presidential transition and called for a special election without any grounds in the ASSU Constitution. As can be expected, these actions were not conducive to the legitimacy of the ASSU.

This set of actions led to a total of three Constitutional Council cases, which resulted in rulings that made it clear that these actions were unconstitutional. This set of circumstances put the Constitutional Council in the awful position of having to decide who were the ASSU Executives: the students who won the general Presidential Election or the ones who won the special election. The Council ruled in favor of the winners of the special election as the winners had already been serving as ASSU Executives for about eight months. At the same time the Council ruled unanimously that the Senate acted unconstitutionally. 

After this series of rulings, the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council amended the Joint Bylaws of the ASSU to make it clear that the Presidential election cannot be undone by the Undergraduate Senate or the Graduate Student Council alone, and instead both of the ASSU legislative bodies must act in concert to invalidate ASSU elections results on four grounds: voter fraud, voter disenfranchisement, partisan conduct by elections officers or an election conducted not in accordance with the ASSU Constitution.

Unfortunately, last-minute bylaw amendments with the intent to clarify the ASSU Presidential transition will undo these reforms by requiring the Presidential transition to only take place after the certification of the election results by the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council. These proposals might put unelected students (such as elections commissioners or Constitutional Council members) in the position of choosing who are the duly elected leaders.

To be sure, this recent flurry of activity in procedural bills is a necessary undertaking that ASSU should commit to. The ASSU legislative bodies should draft new election rules. This proposed activity is very encouraging, because it means that people are thinking about complex election issues and are working to improve ASSU procedures which have not been carefully updated in a number of years. It is also a good idea to make these changes well outside of the election season.

Unfortunately, haste is a poor advisor when it comes to crafting legislation. As challenges of election results before the Constitutional Council have shown time and again in the past decades (for example in 2004, 2005 and recently), elections are a breeding ground for potential unconstitutional behavior or rules and these new election rules are likely to introduce new problems. 

The proposed changes that we are most concerned about are those regarding the transition timeline (e.g. this proposed bill). These changes seek to sync the transition of the ASSU Executive with the legislative bodies — a goal that is perfectly fine in and of itself. However, the proposed language will reintroduce the ability for one legislative body to indefinitely delay the ASSU Executive transition.

Furthermore, we encourage the newly elected student leaders in the Undergraduate Senate and the Graduate Student Council to pick up the mantle from the previous legislative bodies and work to finalize the other proposed procedural bills. While it may be tempting to rush through these changes (who wants to discuss boring election legislation for many weeks?), the required 2/3 majority should be an indicator that these changes shouldn’t be rushed. It is important to create a system that is safe and addresses possible irregularities in the process. 

The legislative bodies have introduced a bill amending election sanctions. We think it is valuable to revisit this framework cautiously, especially considering the criticism that was repeatedly expressed regarding the constitutionality of various campaigning constraints. Our concern about the implementation in this bill is that it seems likely that it will lead to more invalidated elections. The bill introduces the option that candidates are disqualified before the election, yet it is possible the Constitutional Council rules a slate or candidate disqualification was invalid after the election has already taken place. In this situation the Constitutional Council would have to decide if the wrongful removal of a candidate from the ballot necessitates the invalidation of that election. A candidate wrongly removed from the ballot does not have a fair chance of winning the election they are running in.

We urge prudence and hope the ASSU legislature works to address these issues prior to adopting bylaw amendments. The bylaws need revision and we embrace the ASSU taking on the difficult task of election policy reform. 

There are probably a number of other issues that can be improved in the election legislation (see, for example, this recent op-ed by one of the authors) and it may be advisable to ask a joint committee to evaluate the entire package of regulations in light of the ASSU Constitution, Constitutional Council rulings and general best practices in dialogue with the student community — not only to optimize election security, but also to make it a pleasant process for candidates and voters alike, hopefully with higher turnout and more candidates as a result.

We urge the current members of the ASSU legislature to postpone adoption of these bylaw amendments and instead allow the newly elected members to resolve the issues we raise here.

Lodewijk Gelauff is a Ph.D. candidate in management science and engineering, and a member of the Crowdsourced Democracy Team. He was a member of the ASSU Constitutional Council from 2019 until 2022.

Viktor Krapivin is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics and has been a member of the ASSU Constitutional Council since 2018.

Originally posted 2023-05-16 07:12:23.