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UA Elections A Disaster (Again)

Michael J. Ring

Given all of the fiascoes related to Undergraduate Association elections in recent years, one would guess that the hapless undergraduate citizenry would have seen the worst by now.

But the UA has outdone itself. This year’s ugly affair, now destined for a third round of balloting, has been so badly mismanaged that crooked union bosses would be proud. Indeed, many Third World nations enjoy smoother electoral processes than this.

UA elections have been far from ideal for some time. In any given year, the majority of undergraduates choose not to vote (and when forced to do so three times, students can hardly be blamed for their apathy). Over the past five to ten years, UA elections have been hampered by a lack of strong candidates, poorly advertised debates and forums, and the inability of the UA Election Commission to disseminate properly candidates’ platforms.

1998 was a particularly dreadful year for the commission. In the spring of that year, the UA presidential election results were voided and a second round of balloting ordered after the alleged e-mail violations of candidate Paul Oppold ’99. This decision was promulgated by a judicial board fully appointed by an administration in which Oppold’s opponent -- Sandra Sandroval ’00 -- was vice-president. (Never mind that Oppold did not have the required signatures to place his name on the ballot with his ultimate running mate.)

That fall, a round of voting for freshmen class council positions was cancelled when -- oops! -- one of the presidential candidates was left off the ballot. This discrepancy was not discovered by the election commission but the other candidates.

The debacles of 1998 deprived the undergraduate population of strong student leadership right when we needed it most. And, unfortunately, history appears to be repeating itself this year.

This should have been a successful election. Four strong candidate teams for president and vice-president, and well-attended debates and forums, generated much more interest in UA elections than seen in recent years.

But in the interim we have witnessed:

* A first round of voting cancelled because of a bug in the software.

* A candidate team, Chris D. Smith ’01 and Patrick D. Kane ’03, stripped from the ballot because of postering violations, only to be restored to the ballot in the wee hours of Friday morning.

* A second round of voting cancelled in the wake of the election commission’s indecision over what to do with Smith and Kane.

With the disasters of this election, the UA has wasted a perfect opportunity to regain student trust and has only further perpetuated the apathy and cynicism students feel toward the organization. When the third round of voting commences this week, it will indeed be a wonder if any undergraduates are still excited over the election.

UA elections need radical change and need it now. While this process is already lost, the following steps must be taken in order to salvage credibility for future elections.

* Draft clear rules regarding acceptable postering, paying special attention to potential tampering. Current postering rules are vague, and anyone with a vendetta against any of the candidates can easily shuffle a few posters around and place a candidate in trouble. To their credit, the election commission has already recognized this problem and is working on solutions. Setting aside special bulletin boards for campaign postering is one idea.

* Stop electronic voting and conduct elections entirely by paper balloting. Once again, the UA’s web-based toy has caused more headaches than it has solved. Whether the system isn’t programmed to add vote totals or a glitch prevents some undergraduates from accessing the web page, there always seems to be a problem with the web-based system. It’s time for the election commission to put this toy back in the closet and go back to the tried-and-true system of pen and ink that has served democracy well for centuries. Paper balloting may not be glitzy, but it works.

* Hear cases of alleged violations as soon as possible and rule swiftly on appeals. The election commission moved with all the speed of a three-toed sloth in deciding how to resolve the Smith-Kane case. Smith accumulated violations throughout the week of March 27th and by the most conservative estimate had exceeded his quota of demerit points on the 4th of April, yet he was not taken off the ballot until early the next morning. Then another two days elapsed before he was restored to the ballot. These delays are unacceptable and only serve to anger students who must then vote multiple times. Further, the extremely slow pace with which the election commission has worked only confirms suspicions of indecisiveness and incompetence.

If these steps are not enough, the UA must ask an exterior organization, such as the GSC or the administration, to run its elections until such time as the UA has a better, cleaner system in place. This drastic step of receivership would be embarrassing for the UA and further dilute its already small political power, but if it is the only way by which the UA can learn to conduct a spotless election, then it must take such extreme action for the benefit of future MIT undergraduates.

The strength of democratic political power starts with the act of elections. A well-run election and a strong turnout would enhance the credibility of the UA. Likewise, an election which must be run three times and will struggle to gain even meager turnout will handicap the UA. Chuck Vest and Larry Bacow, knowing the organization is in such tatters, can hardly be blamed should they laugh the next UA president out of their offices.

The UA will only become credible when it runs a clean election and attracts a large majority of undergraduates to the polls, not by running an election so shoddily even hardened Teamsters shudder in disgust. The UA Election Commission must either work to make the radical overhauls needed itself or place itself in receivership with an organization that can.