An election to choose the eleven student members of the Coop’s board of directors was declared void by its stockholders, and a new election scheduled, after it emerged that a candidate had voted using the credentials of several of her supporters, with their consent. As the second election’s closing date loomed, it remained unclear whether the vote tally would reach the minimum number required for student input to be counted. It was additionally unclear whether the Coop’s governing body had nominated as many MIT students as it is required to.
The Coop’s board of directors controls the cooperative’s high-level business decisions such as opening branches or setting the amount refunded from the cooperative’s profits to its members annually. Eleven of the Coop’s 23-member board of directors are Harvard or MIT students. All student Coop members are eligible to vote to fill these positions; the second election ends today.
The second election, which began April 26, had received 400 votes as of yesterday afternoon, said Coop general manager Allan Powell. The election’s results are void unless at least five percent of eligible voters vote; about 850 votes are required. In the event that this second election cannot raise enough votes, “we will not go to a third election,” said Allan S. Bufferd ‘59, chairman of the Coop’s board of directors. Instead, he said, the positions would be filled directly by the board, per the Coop’s bylaws.
The first election, which ran from March 6 to Apr. 6, saw some votes being cast on voters’ behalf by a proxy; these proxy votes are not specifically permitted by the organization’s bylaws and so may not be counted under Massachusetts law, said Jodi N. Beggs ’00, who cast ballots on behalf of dozens of her supporters. Beggs said she was not aware that the practice was not allowed.
Powell said there is “no provision in the bylaws to allow” voting by proxy; as a result, the election was declared void by the Coop’s stockholders, a group of ten which handles issues of corporate governance. Bufferd said the Coop chose to hold a second vote because it “would not have been appropriate” to void the election for technical reasons and then appoint the new board directly while time still remained to hold another election.
This year’s election was also unusual because only three MIT students were directly nominated onto the ballot. The Coop’s stockholders nominate 11 students; according to the Coop’s bylaws, four of those nominated must be MIT students. This year, the stockholders nominated eight Harvard students and three MIT students, 11 in total.
Powell said that a March 1997 amendment to the Coop’s bylaws had eliminated the four-student restriction. The amendment Powell referenced does not appear relevant; though it states that stockholders may nominate fewer than 11 students to avoid the distribution requirements.
Following the announced nominations, MIT student Alexander St. Claire ‘08 and Beggs increased the number of candidates to 13 by adding themselves to the ballot. Each new candidate submitted a petition with the names and membership numbers of at least 75 student Coop members.
Powell said that he learned from Beggs on April 6 — the last day of the first election — that she had voted on behalf of some of those who signed her petition. Beggs said that, inspired by weekly e-mails from Powell about meager voter turnout, she called and e-mailed many of her supporters. She said that some supporters had asked her to vote on their behalf because they were unable to reach a computer before the midnight deadline, and that others had been unwilling to visit the voting Web site and had requested Beggs vote for them.
To prevent proxy voting in the second election, Powell said he would contact some or all of the signatories to St. Claire and Beggs’s petitions and confirm that they had voted on their own behalf. Currently, voting requires only one’s Coop number and the first four letters of their last name; in the future, Powell said he intends to seek a “way to assure that people are voting personally.”
Some MIT students, including Derric G. Tay ‘07 and Daniel B. Denis ‘08, reported that they encountered errors while attempting to vote. Both students said that after they submitted their ballots, they saw a Java error instead of a successful confirmation page. “I don’t know whether my vote was counted, but I tried multiple times and got that same error,” said Tay in an e-mail.
Why is the direction of an organization which struggles for five percent voter turnout relevant?
Powell stressed the importance of Coop leadership as a business experience. The job involves “working on a real board, dealing with real business issues and making decisions … it’s not just an exercise,” he said. There is also a “modest stipend” for student board members. For 2006, the Coop reported $45 million revenue last year and $1.5 million net earnings.
Bufferd described the Coop as a service organization serving both MIT and Harvard students. The Coop “provides a service to them — and if they want to have a voice in the governance of that, they should express it by vote,” he said. Serving on the board is “a valuable experience in the processes of board governance.”
St. Claire, who has been vocal in advertising his candidacy to the MIT community and in discussions with Coop management, said that he wants the Coop to be more open. He cited his difficulty in obtaining the organization’s bylaws, which are only available in paper to members at the Harvard Coop. St. Claire also said he is interested in changing the kinds of products offered at the Student Center location by targeting MIT students instead of tourists.
Citing a friend who asked “isn’t the Coop just a branch of Barnes and Noble?,” Beggs said the Coop needs stronger branding. She also cited high textbook prices as a target for improvement, saying that she hopes to find some “way for the tourists to be cost-subsidizing the students.”
Students may vote at http://store.thecoop.com/coopstore/coopstore_studentelections.jsp. The site states that “Eligible voters are Student Coop members who are degree candidates at Harvard, EDS, or MIT with Coop membership dues paid as of March 1, 2007.” This reporter was able to buy a Coop membership on May 3 and access a ballot, though it was not clear whether such a vote would be counted if submitted.