ASSU Constitutional Council accepts case challenging sophomore presidential election constitutionality

May 10, 2021, 9:06 p.m.

The Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) Constitutional Council voted 4-1 on Monday to accept a case disputing the constitutionality of the 2021 sophomore class presidential election, with a hearing scheduled for the following week. The decision came after a debate on whether the case in question, Sophomore Class President Slate Coalition v. Elections Commission, falls under the Council’s jurisdiction.

The petitioners, a coalition of three out of four sophomore class presidential slates that ran in the April election, requested that the Council hold the Commission responsible for improving rank-choice voting procedures in future elections. The petition argues that the lack of an “abstain” option and the failure to include candidates’ names next to their slate in the 2021 election violated the ASSU Joint Bylaws. 

The lawsuit came after the petitioners dropped an earlier request to overturn election results and hold a new election. Now, their “utmost priority,” according to Alyssa Murray ’24, who ran on the second-place slate Cardinal Cool, is to ensure future elections do not manifest the same flaws — a sentiment echoed by Elections Commissioner Edwin Ong ’23. 

“I support making the changes proposed by the petitioners in the elections moving forward, as I believe that they are better and fairer procedures,” Ong wrote in the response brief he submitted to the Council. Ong also pointed out that an “abstain” option is required for ASSU presidential elections only, not class presidential elections.

In bringing the case to the Constitutional Council, one of Murray’s running mates, Solomon Kim ’24, believed that it was the Council’s responsibility to adopt an advisory role and propose “specific remedies” to improve rank-choice voting in future elections. 

But in the opinion of Councilor Lodewijk Gelauff M.S. ’20 Ph.D. ’22, the Council can only make decisions regarding the constitutionality of a specific electoral mechanism.

“We cannot decide how [future elections] should be done — we can only decide they should not be done [in a specific way] because that violates the Constitution,” Gelauff said.

According to Councilor Alexis Abboud J.D. ’21, who was the only member to vote to deny the case, the Council was also ill-prepared to make an informed decision about specific voting procedures for undergraduate student elections — especially considering the Council is composed of majority graduate students. In Abboud’s view, even a proposal that is “perfectly reasonable and something that many of us very much support” should not be up to the five councilors to “decree from on high.”

Abboud instead recommended that the slates pursue “other political mechanisms,” including the Undergraduate Senate’s constitutional amendment process, to institutionalize their suggestions for future elections. 

Murray agreed that working with the Undergraduate Senate sounds promising. Murray also expressed interest in Gelauff’s suggestion to work with the Elections Commission to amend the voting procedures outlined in the ASSU Elections Commission Handbook, a document that is briefly referenced in the ASSU Joint Bylaws.

Despite reservations about the extent of the Council’s jurisdiction, the councilors also recognized the difficulties of navigating a rarely used mechanism in ASSU governance. 

“I think even this prolonged discussion among the councilors about whether to accept, deny or defer [the case] shows some of the difficulties here,” Councilor Colin O’Brien J.D. ’21 said. 

The Council’s decision to ultimately accept the case was based on the quarter’s limited timeline, which discourages deferral, and an understanding that further discussions between representatives from both sides to work out a solution could prove successful in the intervening week before the hearing.

According to O’Brien, the two sides do not appear to have an “adversarial relationship.” If an agreement is reached, the case may be withdrawn before next week’s hearing, when the Council will meet again to review evidence and hear witness testimony.

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