Madison Gardner and running mate Antonio Guevara got back on the executive alliance ballot Monday when dean of students Soncia Reagins-Lilly announced the suspension of the election code provision against candidates associating with one another. Their reinstatement is likely to only intensify the ad hominem attacks and cries of class warfare that opponents have leveled against Gardner since he filed a lawsuit against the University at the end of last month. Although the mixed reactions to Gardner’s out-of-court settlement and personal attacks against him and Guevara certainly generate entertaining rhetoric, candidates and the student body alike continue to ignore the gravest implications of the suit: voter apathy, a scarcity of future candidates and damage to the reputation of Student Government.
I should include as a disclaimer that I initially supported Gardner’s pursuit of legal action in response to what I saw as an unfair disqualification that revealed an undue focus on election code minutiae. The Election Supervisory Board’s decision implied that a simple oversight with regard to campaign materials merits the same punishment as the impersonation of a University official, the offense for which the Yaman and Whitney campaign was disqualified. However, as the drama wore on I began to question the wisdom of the lawsuit not only on legal grounds but also out of concern for the suit’s effects on subsequent elections and on SG itself. The contention and conflict that have become synonymous with SG elections over the past few years will not be quelled by Gardner’s reinstatement. Instead, they continue to threaten the validity of this election and deter potential candidates who do not wish to face such stringent regulations and high-profile controversy.
Although the Gardner campaign is celebrating the reinstatement as a vindication of its grievances, for the past few weeks the remaining candidates, John Lawler and Thor Lund, have capitalized on the negative publicity surrounding the suit to launch populist appeals and paint themselves as “everyman” alternatives to Gardner’s purported financial hegemony. Public opinion is difficult to gauge, but it seems that even if Gardner and Guevara manage to win the election, the dark shadow of the controversial lawsuit and deleterious portraits that it has inspired would overshadow their term in office and undermine their credibility.
The Gardner scandal’s ramifications, however, extend far beyond the current election. Gardner himself admitted in a Daily Texan interview that the postponement is likely to decrease voter turnout. The greater the controversy and the longer the wait, the less interested students will be in tracking new developments. Indeed, the postponement of the executive alliance race appears to have already discouraged students; voter turnout was down significantly from last year for the other SG races that were held on schedule. Eliminating the highest-profile race from the ballot apparently discouraged students from voting in the other races, potentially altering the results. It remains to be seen whether the widely publicized contention over Gardner’s lawsuit and subsequent restoration to the ballot has sparked voter interest in the race or only increased apathy toward what likely seems to the average student an increasingly distant and bloody-minded Student Government.
Gardner’s ordeal may also deter students from running for SG positions. Regardless of its validity, the court battle may discourage future presidential hopefuls for whom the costs of public scrutiny, campaign micromanagement and the potential for real legal disputes outweigh the benefits of an SG title. Gardner’s reinstatement is unlikely to silence those fears for many potential candidates, as, admittedly, it was accomplished through Gardner’s uncommon financial ability to hire an attorney.
Though the battle has moved out of the Travis County courthouse, it rages on in the court of public opinion and continues to deter both voters and potential candidates. In the absence of a judge’s ruling, we can only hope that this heated dispute will spur a reexamination of SG election procedures and lead to reforms to make candidacy more accessible and less intimidating.
Oliver is an English and sociology freshman.