On April 1 and 2, LSA students voted between two tickets for LSA Student Government president and vice president: one with juniors Jordan Schuler and Sai Pamidighantam and the other with juniors Selena Bazzi and Josiah Walker. Two weeks later, the results of the election have not been certified and a winning ticket has not been announced.
Bazzi and Walker won the election with 437 votes, 132 more than Schuler and Pamidighantam, according to a copy of the uncertified results shared with The Daily by co-Elections Director Tyler Ziel, an LSA senior. But a Central Student Judiciary appeal filed by Schuler over messages Bazzi sent in two GroupMe chats could lead to her ticket’s disqualification.
LSA SG bylaws forbid campaigning during the voting period. Schuler and Pamidighantam have accused Bazzi of doing so on social media and demand her ticket’s disqualification. Bazzi and Walker say the social media posts in question were intended to increase voter turnout and cannot be considered campaigning. They add that Schuler and Pamidighantam made social media posts during the voting period that could be considered campaigning, but Bazzi and Walker didn’t report them because they did not want demerits to impact the outcome of the election.
Demerits are issued to candidates when they are found to have violated the Elections Code. Four or more demerits disqualify a candidate or ticket from the election.
Election rules, specifically those related to online campaigning, are unclear and election directors have broad discretion to interpret them, co-Elections Director Natalie Suh, an LSA sophomore, said. The elections directors ruled that Bazzi’s posts constitute implicit rather than explicit campaigning and issued two demerits instead of disqualifying her and Walker by issuing six. Schuler and Pamidighantam argued this is an unfair application of the rules based on precedent and that Bazzi and Walker should be disqualified.
The question of who will lead LSA SG comes down to code technicalities and a few social media posts. But for the four candidates awaiting the CSJ’s decision, they said in documents and interviews that the decision raises larger questions about power, politics, equal application of rules and free speech on campus.
Who posted what and when?
Forty minutes after the polls opened April 1, Bazzi sent two identical GroupMe messages in two separate chats: one contained members of the Central Student Government’s Seventh Assembly and the other included members of her first-year hall council, though Bazzi noted only four to five voters were in each group.
Bazzi sent the message “POLLS ARE OPEN, PLEASE VOTE ! I am running for President :). Vote.umich.edu.” on Wednesday, April 1. Whether or not the posts’ 10 words constitute explicit campaigning — during a period where campaigning is strictly prohibited — could disqualify her and Walker, changing the outcome of the election.
Ziel and Suh issued two demerits to Bazzi and Walker after Schuler and Pamidighantam reported Bazzi’s posts following the end of the official campaigning period. Schuler and Pamidighantam declined to comment for this story due to the ongoing investigation into the election’s results.
Demerits can be issued to both students in LSA SG who are not running and candidates. Election-related demerits handed to non-candidates do not impact the race, but are issued to note wrongdoing.
In an interview with The Daily, Bazzi pointed to the fact that her opponent, Pamidighantam, was in the CSG Assembly chat and that Pamidighantam and Schuler’s campaign manager was in the dorm chat as proof her messages weren’t intended to campaign.
“I wouldn’t want to put (Sai) in an awkward position or myself,” Bazzi said. “I guess you could say that it’s support to my point that my intention is just to get people to vote. I’m not going to actively campaign in a chat that my opponent is in. I understand that it’s important to respect other people’s opinions, I feel like that would be crossing a line so I never intentionally tried to do that.”
Bazzi and Walker also stressed the limited reach of the messages. Bazzi noted only four to five eligible voters were in each of the group chats, rendering the impact minor in an election of more than 700 votes.
Schuler and Pamidighantam both posted on Facebook during the voting period in a public group named “Vote Jordan & Sai for LSA SG President and Vice President!” Right after midnight on April 1, Schuler posted: “Voting is officially open! Please go vote at vote.umich.edu! :)” The next day, Schuler and Pamidighantam commented thanks under a post endorsing the pair.
Bazzi and Walker claimed to have seen Schuler and Pamidighantam’s posts, which they said would also warrant demerits, but did not report them to the elections directors because they did not want to potentially disqualify their opponents.
The elections directors’ demerit report is supposed to be confidential, though a copy was obtained by The Daily, as were two briefs submitted by third parties to the CSJ and the elections directors’ demerit report on Bazzi’s post.
The question is not if the voting period regulations — which are only in place during the time frame in which students can vote — were violated. The elections directors ruled that they were. The question lies in the extent to which the ticket found in violation of the regulations should be punished.
The demerit report
Ziel and Suh ruled in a demerit report that each GroupMe message constituted a one-point minor violation of the election code, totaling two demerits. There is no impact on candidates who receive a total number of demerits under four during an election cycle.
The report acknowledges Bazzi’s posts to be major violations of the rule against “campaigning during the voting period.” Each candidate received an email before the no-campaigning period began, reiterating the rules and, according to the demerit report, each candidate “signed a contract waiving their ability to promote themselves during the voting period.”
A major violation would constitute three demerits, so a major violation for each of the two posts would have put Bazzi and Walker over the four demerit threshold for disqualification.
However, LSA SG bylaws encourage leniency in application of the laws and stress that they are not intended to disqualify candidates.
In the demerit report, the elections directors noted a distinction between explicit campaigning, directly calling for people to vote for a candidate, and implicit campaigning, implying that people should vote for a candidate. Though the difference is not stated verbatim in the LSA code, the elections directors interpreted that the former would be a major violation worth three demerits, while the latter would constitute a minor violation worth one point.
“It is clear that Selena was implying for the members of the two GroupMe chats to vote for her, but as it was disseminating the voting website to encourage a higher voter turnout and not her asking the members(s) to directly vote for her, it was not her explicitly campaigning, and interpretations of the rules must be construed liberally in favor of free and open communication,” the report reads.
Because of this, the elections directors slashed the demerits from a total of six to two.
“To issue a major violation demerit for this would be too draconian for the decree of the violation,” the report reads.
In an email to The Daily, Suh said she saw merit in the argument that Bazzi and Walker were not fairly penalized. Though she wrote the report with Ziel, she said she found issue with the ruling.
“I do believe there is merit to the accusations saying that Selena Bazzi’s violations were underplayed especially if we consider some of the other demerits handed out,” Suh wrote.
‘The full six demerits’: the appeal’s argument
Under LSA SG’s bylaws, CSJ can interpret election rules if need be. Schuler and Pamidighantam filed an appeal to CSJ April 10 against the elections directors’ decision to minimize Bazzi and Walker’s demerits. The appeal called for CSJ to overturn the elections directors’ ruling and penalize Bazzi and Walker with the six demerits that would accompany two major violations instead of the two minor violations they were initially given.
The appeal argued that as soon as a candidate, in this case Bazzi herself, was mentioned in the GroupMe posts, it became explicit rather than implicit campaigning because the bylaws “expressly prohibit any mention of a particular candidate in a message disseminated during the voting period.”
The appeal said the elections directors ruled in another demerit report for this election cycle — using the same rules as Bazzi’s post violated — that a social media post made by a student not running in this election that explicitly mentioned a candidate during the voting period constituted a major violation. The student who posted it was issued three demerits.
Though only the person who posted was issued the demerits — which would have no effect as demerits only impact candidates — the appeal argued that this application of what constitutes a major violation should also be used for Bazzi’s post.
The appeal highlighted the discrepancy between the elections directors’ ruling for Bazzi’s posts and the unnamed student’s post as an unfair application of the bylaws.
In an interview with The Daily, Walker said the content of the appeal violates LSA SG’s constitution and CSJ’s purpose. He compared the CSJ overruling the elections director to the Supreme Court overruling a law because the justices personally don’t approve of it.
“The Central Student Judiciary can’t overrule the elections directors simply because they disagree with his reasoning,” Walker said. “The Supreme Court can overrule someone’s decision if that decision was unconstitutional, but if the decision is constitutional, and the elections director’s decision was constitutional, it can’t be overruled simply because the Supreme Court doesn’t like it.”
The Facebook comments: implicit or explicit campaigning?
There were no demerits issued for any posts made by Pamidighantam and Schuler made in the “Vote Jordan & Sai for LSA SG President and Vice President!” Facebook group during the voting period. But according to an amicus curiae brief submitted to CSJ by LSA sophomore Tyler Watt and LSA junior Chayton Fivecoat in support of the elections directors’ original decision, the actions at the heart of the case committed by Bazzi were “committed in equal measure” by Schuler and Pamidighantam in that Facebook group.
“A candidate posting in a Facebook group with dozens of members who are eligible to vote in the election campaigns explicitly for themself; the fact that their name and that of their running mate appear in the masthead of the event certainly create an even stronger suggestion for people to vote for that specific ticket,” Watt and Fivecoat wrote in the brief.
The elections directors’ demerit report argued that liking and commenting on social media posts explicitly campaigning should only be counted as implicit campaigning.
“When liking or commenting (on) a post, it does advertise and endorse the sentiment of the post, and if that post is campaigning, it is the person who liked or commented on it that is implicitly campaigning,” Ziel wrote in the report.
Schuler and Pamidighantam’s CSJ appeal, however, claims the Facebook posts were neither implicit nor explicit campaigning. Likes or comments themselves don’t mention a particular candidate and shouldn’t be considered campaigning at all, they argued.
“The comparison of (Bazzi’s) messages to liking or commenting on a social media post, which is determined to be implicit campaigning for the purposes of this and other decisions, would be a false equivalency, as such an action would not mention the name of any particular candidate,” the appeal said.
Ultimately, Schuler and Pamidighantam’s report and Watt and Fivecoat’s brief present diverging arguments: Schuler and Pamidighantam feel that posting about voting in the Facebook group would be considered posting to increase voter turnout, which would not be a violation of the rules. Watt and Fivecoat, on the other hand, argue that the context of the Facebook page being for their campaign makes it explicit campaigning, which would be a violation.
No demerit report was issued for the posts Watt and Fivecoat mentioned because they went unreported during the election. These posts, however, will be at least read by CSJ as they are part of the brief.
Student voice versus the code
Watt and Fivecoat’s brief notes that Schuler and Pamidighantam’s call for increased demerits for Bazzi’s GroupMe posts would eliminate Bazzi and Walker from the race altogether, a penalty Watt and Fivecoat believe is disproportionate to the posts’ impact.
Bazzi said Schuler and Pamidighantam’s appeal disregards the importance of the student body’s voice in elections. Bazzi and Walker did not report the Facebook comments from the amicus curiae brief because it could impact the final vote due to insignificant social media posts. They argued that would be an act of voter suppression.
“We didn’t follow through with filing instances of demerits against our opponents because we wanted the results to overall be a reflection of what the student body wants,” Bazzi said. “If anything, what we prioritize first is the student voice. Student voice before all these loopholes in the Constitution and demerits. Student voice is what’s important.”
In an amicus curiae brief submitted to the CSJ defending Schuler’s appeal, 2019 elections directors Nicholas Fadanelli, now an alum, and Nicholas Martire, Public Policy senior, said the current elections directors’ decision to reduce Bazzi and Walker’s demerit count from seven –– six from the GroupMe messages and one from another violation –– to three was inherently arbitrary and antidemocratic.
“If candidates are capable of violating election regulation to such extremes that they should be disqualified but do not receive any punishment, it cannot be argued that the rule of law is being upheld by even the broad standard set by the United Nations for determining if elections are truly free and democratic,” Fadanelli and Martire wrote in the brief. “Upholding the Defendant’s decision would set precedent chilling enforcement of election regulation and heavily imply to candidates that violations of election regulation do not matter, and encourage them to do so in order to win.”
Fadanelli and Martire argued the reduced demerits severely violate the integrity of the LSA SG elections.
“(The Elections Director) cites Election Code § 08.05 as justification for establishing this new standard as it enables them to interpret the Election Code in a ‘liberal manner,’” Fadanelli and Martire wrote. “However, Election Code § 08.05 has two clearly competing priorities within it – that rules should be interpreted ‘liberally in favor of free and open communication and debate’ and ‘to protect the integrity of the election process’. Therefore in this case we must ask which of these priorities takes precedence over the other?”
In their CSJ appeal, Schuler and Pamidighantam argue that if candidates can break election code without threat to their candidacy, there will be nothing to discourage such violations.
“We are concerned that the current decision sets a dangerous precedent that allows candidates to violate election code to win without the threat of the proper enforcement of punishment,” the appeal reads.
The positions hang in the balance
In April 2019, then-elections directors Fadanelli and Martire advised the LSA SG Executive Board to better define what constituted campaigning during the voting period.
“A coherent policy about Facebook events must be codified in the bylaws if campaigning during the voting period is still banned,” Fadanelli and Martire wrote in the email to the board.
A year later, the same policy Fadanelli and Martire raised concern about could impact the outcome of this election.
All involved parties — Bazzi and Walker, Schuler and Pamidighantam, Ziel and Suh, Fadanelli and Martire, and Watt and Fivecoat — agreed that the COVID-19 outbreak forcing students off campus put an additional emphasis on virtual campaigning.
Without a final decision, neither Bazzi and Walker nor Schuler and Pamidighantam can assume the positions of president and vice president and begin leading LSA SG.
The decision now rests with CSJ to determine the intent of Bazzi’s posts.
Since the publishing of this article, new information obtained by The Daily shows Schuler and Pamidighantam have received one demerit and the visual has been updated to reflect this. This article has also been updated to clarify there is no deduction of votes for tickets that receive three or less demerits.
Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at email@example.com.