Ever since former presidential candidate Aaron Eberhart sent a letter to the editor to the Reporter alleging election corruption on April 8, the story on this year’s election has only continued to develop.
The Elections Commission acknowledged rule violations that they had made and sought to remedy these violations by postponing the election by three weeks (from April 12 to April 25). In a public hearing (Zachary J. Orum vs. MSSA Elections Commission) held in the MSSA office on Tuesday, the Constitution Commission entered the discussion and took a stand on the issue.
In attendance were commission chair Daniel Gries and commission members Tien Bui, Kwadwo Owusa, David Cowan, and Ginger Zierdt.
The complainant, Zachary Orum, is a former independent senatorial candidate in this year’s election. Orum challenged the constitutionality of the Elections Commission’s decision. He emphasized that he wanted to make sure that this never happens again. Future prevention of the issue was discussed during the event, but Cowan reminded the commission members that their job was to interpret the situation at hand. The commission did, however, note in a statement that “convening the Elections Commission early enough so its members can be educated as to its duties and responsibilities would help to avoid a repeat of the errors of omission that led to this Spring’s election controversy.”
Two clauses of the constitution were the crux of the discussion.
Article III Section 1 of the constitution states that “the Spring Elections of the MSSA shall be held on the second (2nd) Tuesday in April,” suggesting that the Elections Commission’s decision was a constitutional violation. On the other hand, Article V Section 4 states that “the Elections Commission shall have sole authority to develop and enforce any and all rules and regulations regarding the Spring Elections, as well as any special elections,” suggesting that the Elections Commission made its decision within its legitimate constitutional authority.
Cowan made clear that the commission’s decision hinged on one question: was the Election Commission’s decision to postpone the election beyond the second Tuesday of April unconstitutional or was it within their constitutional power granted in the “sole authority” clause? The commission members made arguments in favor of both sides.
Cowan said that, while the “second Tuesday” clause is clear as to the date, a special circumstance had arisen and that the commission’s interpretation of “sole authority” should permit reasonable actions taken in response to “substantial” circumstances. He compared the situation with severe weather events like blizzards and floods which would make holding the election difficult or impossible. Orum noted that the situation at hand was not an act of God, but a failure on the part of the Elections Commission to fulfill its duty. Cowan argued, however, that it was important to take into consideration that the error was acknowledged by the Elections Commission.
Bui pushed back against Cowan’s interpretation. He said that the “sole authority” clause should not be interpreted to mean that the Elections Commission can violate the constitution. If that was admitted, he said, there would theoretically be nothing stopping the Elections Commission from determining the outcome of the election based on a coin toss. Cowan argued that the “sole authority” clause should be interpreted so that constitutional violations should be permitted so long as the Constitution Commission deems that there is “substantial reason” for doing so.
In a private meeting after the hearing, the Constitution Commission voted in favor of the Elections Commission. In its statement, the commission concludes that “the date change was grounded in the attempt to broaden participation in the electoral process, a process that was initially hampered by shortcomings in its administration by that same Elections Commission. If the Elections Commission’s decision was arbitrary or capricious, the outcome of this Constitution interpretation may well have been different.”
Eberhart was in attendance along with Derek Ringhand, a former senatorial candidate for Eberhart’s Accountability Party. Both expressed their belief not only in the unconstitutionality of the postponement, but also in the unfairness of holding any election this semester whatsoever. They made the case that the issue was that the Mavericks Empowering Mavericks party was given an unfair head-start in this semester’s election. The Elections Commission’s postponement, they argue, does not remedy the issue—as the Elections Commission claims it does—because it does not change the fact that Mavericks Empowering Mavericks still has a head-start. At the hearing, Eberhart proposed that the election be postponed until fall semester so as to provide a “true restart.” Eberhart and Ringhand have submitted a letter to the editor detailing their position, which can be found on page two.
Objections toward the fall election proposal were made during the hearing. The commission commented on this in its statement, saying that it “would have created problems including issues of who governs for five months between a Fall Election and when the existing 84th session of the MSSA/Senate terminates following the May Commencement.”
No representative of the Elections Commission was present.
Cowan says that the circumstances of this year’s election are unprecedented in his experience with MSSA. Both Zierdt and Cowan referred to the issue as “huge.”
While Cowan made clear that the Constitution Commission was focused on the constitutionality of the postponement, for the sake of context it is worth noting the two rules the Elections Commission failed to comply with. They are listed as follows in the MSSA Spring Election Rules: 1) “The Elections Commission shall distribute posters advertising upcoming elections and candidacy filing procedures” and 2) “The Elections Commission shall work with the Office of Student Affairs to distribute an all-student email advertising upcoming elections and candidacy filing procedures.”
The Constitution Commission is one of five independent MSSA boards and commissions, whose members are appointed by student senate and the MNSU president, according to MSSA advisor John Bulcock. The Elections Commission is also an independent commission. Bulcock notes that the Constitution Commission acts more or less as the Supreme Court of MSSA. According to the constitution, the commission has “ultimate authority for the interpretation of this Constitution and its Bylaws, and the internal articles of operations and procedures of the Student Senate and its committees” and that the “rulings of the Constitution Commission are final and not subject to appeal.”