Scandals disrupt student elections across Texas campuses

Jody Serrano

Scandals and disqualifications shook student government elections in colleges across the state this year, raising questions about the students overseeing the elections and the rules governing the process.

Although the intricate cases varied at each institution, the problems and complaints in student government elections are a familiar scene.

Four student government presidential candidates were disqualified by their respective election authorities at the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston for misrepresentation, financial discrepancies and voter fraud, among other reasons. In light of the complications, all three institutions have announced plans to review the election rules and regulations to avoid future problems.

John Claybrook, Student Government Association president at Texas A&M, said he wants to work with the election commission, the student organization overseeing the election, to make the rules are as clear as they can be and coordinate them with student government rules and regulations.

Claybook was disqualified for allegedly misrepresenting the cost of his website and not reporting tax and shipping costs in his total campaign expenses, although he was later reinstated.

“I think as a culture we are being taught to value the final product of our work in regards to campaigns,” Claybrook said. “Candidates might be valuing victory more than we value how we get there.”

Claybrook’s contender, Thomas McNutt, also faced problems this year for misrepresenting the cost of his website, but was not disqualified.

UT is the only institution thus far that will now require legal review of election procedures and other SG governing documents to ensure the rules are compliant with state and federal laws. This change came after former candidate Madison Gardner filed a lawsuit against UT claiming election rules violated his First Amendment constitutional right to association. In the lawsuit, Gardner contested the association clause in the election code, which states candidates are prohibited from associating with candidates from another campaign.

UT suspended the rule in question and reinstated Gardner, who dropped the suit in direct response. Gardner’s case marks the second time UT has been taken to court due to claims that the election code violated constitutional rights.

UTSG presidential candidate Yaman Desai was also disqualified after telling a supporter to impersonate an election official to gain information on Gardner’s campaign.

Although Texas A&M did not face any legal challenges, Claybrook said he wants to have A&M’s general counsel look over election rules to be safe.

Soncia Reagins-Lilly, UT dean of students, said on March 30 that it was important to review these documents to clarify the rules and make sure the University does not face another lawsuit in the future.

“It’s important to have these governing documents reviewed by UT legal or a designated legal office,” Reagins-Lilly said then. “It’s a great responsibility to sit with all those documents and make sure we’re all satisfied.”

At the University of Houston, the school’s Election Commission disqualified president-elect Michael McHugh after they found him guilty of committing voter fraud. The commission charged McHugh and two members of his team with obtaining student identification numbers under false pretenses and using the numbers to vote for themselves in the elections. McHugh hired Jolanda Jones, an attorney and former city council member, to fight for his reinstatement, but lost the case.

McHugh said each college has the right to establish a disqualification clause, but with such rules comes great responsibility. He said he advises universities to be very careful when incorporating such clauses in their election codes.

“By including a disqualification clause in the election code, students focus too much of their time on trying to remove their competitors from the ballot and spreading hearsay rumors to justify their claims rather than focusing on their own campaign and winning the right way,” McHugh said.

Taylor Kilroy, a member of the election reform task force at the University of Houston, said he spoke to legal representatives for UH about reviewing the student government association’s election rules and other governing documents but was unsure on whether they will be reviewed by next year’s elections. Kilroy said UH is working on making the election code more succinct and implement a system that includes password protection in order to vote.

He said UH already passed legislation to ensure the students who oversee the elections only handle election offenses and not disciplinary action.

W.H. “Butch” Oxendine, executive director of the American Student Government Association, said it is common to see candidate disqualifications in the approximately 5,000 student government associations around the country. He said there should be a fine or another punishment instead of disqualification.

Oxendine said disqualifying candidates causes great harm to the reputation of a student government organization and leads students to lose faith in the organizations, which leads to low voter turnout and involvement. He pointed out a case at Florida International University, where candidate scandals and disqualifications caused the student court to recall the results and hold the elections again.

“The general student body doesn’t care about student government,” Oxendine said. “When you see these kind of shenanigans, you think of kids playing government again instead of [focusing on] what is SG doing for us.”