As I walked across the Diag, chalked-out slogans bombarded me from all directions. To my left, “youMICH” incorporated the brass Block M twice like a crossword puzzle. To my right, “Vote forUM” colorfully graced the cracked sidewalk. A morass of posters with memes, “momentUM” and more spanned the posting wall. And a political party, youMICH, released a YouTube video that many students consider to be racist. All of this could mean only one thing: It was campaign season for the Central Student Government.
Candidates campaigned in earnest soon after winter break and until polls closed on March 29. They advanced platforms that would benefit the student body and mobilized students to support them. Although they pounded the pavement for endorsements and Facebook “likes,” ultimately only one measure of support counted — votes.
And in the voting booth, one pair of candidates distinguished themselves from the rest: LSA juniors Chris Osborn and Hayley Sakwa, the presidential and vice presidential candidates of the forUM ticket, respectively, swept the contest by a margin of nearly 500 votes — including mine.
However, they may have set themselves apart in another way — a more squalid one.
Allegedly, Osborn and Sakwa “influenced voters in four instances while they were filling ballots.” Because this type of influence violates the election code — a new code implemented because of similar misconduct seen in the March 2012 election — the University Elections Commission decided to disqualify the candidates from the election pending appeal. The Central Student Judiciary will review the case this weekend and further investigate whether or not the new code can ensure clean elections.
If Osborn and Sakwa did violate the election code to the extent charged, CSJ should uphold the UEC ruling and the candidates shouldn’t take office. The integrity of the University’s democratic process depends on it. These actions are highly unethical and sharply deviate from the exemplary leadership for which University students are known. We shouldn’t condone these violations even if a plurality of voters supported the candidates or if we fear what the second place candidates may do in office.
In fighting their case, the forUM candidates face some fairly damning photographic evidence. However, it wouldn’t seem that way gauging from the reactions of the party and many of its supporters. As one supporter shared with me, “I highly doubt four extra votes won them the election, so it’s a minor technicality, and I don’t believe we should let a minor technicality prevent the University from seeing a much bigger and better change than youMICH offers.”
I would note that this type of influence is neither minor nor merely technical in nature; it gravely encroaches upon an individual’s right to vote — the bedrock of democracy. In addition, it most likely reflects a broader political strategy that earned the candidates far more than four votes if the allegations are true.
Semantics aside, I find this supporter’s perspective deeply unsettling and problematic. It implies that the ends justify the means, which I deem morally reprehensible.
If acted upon, it would allow candidates to have their cake and eat it too. It would enable them to celebrate a democratic process that yields a favorable outcome; however, if the democratic protections integral to that process threaten to invalidate the outcome, they can dispense of them. Unfortunately, this is exactly how forUM seems to hope it’ll play out.
In an official response to the UEC ruling, the party asserted, “students … will not stand for this outrageous outcome. The voices of 3,413 students will be heard.” Much like the supporter I conversed with, forUM tacitly accepts that, even if Osborn and Sakwa grievously violated the election code, their plurality should override the consequence of unethical conduct.
Furthermore, many forUM supporters are rallying against the UEC decision to prevent what they most fear: a youMICH administration. Many other progressive student leaders and I assume that the often-reactionary youMICH candidates would undermine progress towards a more inclusive and diverse campus community. For example, youMICH stands against the Divest and Invest campaign, which in part calls on the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry. This and other stances have spurred student leaders to keep youMICH out of the president’s office by petitioning the UEC decision.
A successful petition would do more harm than good. If Osborn and Sakwa lose their case on appeal, the student body should accept the result rather than meddle with the impartial judiciary; it should trust the democratic process to iron out any discrepancies and that candidates who sufficiently violate the election code will face the consequence — disqualification. Ultimately, the ends don’t justify the means.
Are forUM supporters willing to deny a group political power knowing it will degrade the democratic process? Their answer will help define the landscape of future student government elections and the common understanding of ethics in student leadership.
Kevin Mersol-Barg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.