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How SGA President Joshua Martin quietly reshaped elections in his favor

The changes made to the SGA election code by President Joshua Martin affect everything from campaign finances to term limits. | James Schillinger/The Cougar

The changes made to the SGA election code by President Joshua Martin affect everything from campaign finances to term limits. | James Schillinger/The Cougar

In a display of faux-political maneuvering that began his second week in office, Student Government Association President Joshua Martin quietly oversaw a complete redesign of the SGA election rules that has paved the way for his second campaign.

The changes were passed unanimously by the Senate last April as part of a bill simply titled Election Code Revisions. The revised code features fundamental alterations to everything from presidential term limits to how campaigns are conducted and held fiscally accountable, but that’s not how Martin presented it to the senate. 

Natural Sciences and Mathematics Sen. Salik Faisal was just beginning his term when he voted to pass the bill. When Martin presented the updated code as being purely in the interest of student engagement, he saw no reason to doubt him. 

“Every single senator, including myself at the time, was under the illusion that the changes to the election code were about improving voter turnout in the next election,” Faisal said. “It was only later that I found out that the document, which passed the Senate unanimously, had all these other changes that they weren’t upfront about.”

Martin still maintains this position. He claimed that the sole motivation behind the laundry list of updates was improving voter turnout.

“After the changes made during the 55th administration, there was a steep decline in the number of students casting ballots in SGA elections,” Martin said. “Last year, only a little over 2,000 students voted. This is a sharp downturn from the 5,000 to 6,000 we saw in 2016 and 2017.”

But for senators such as Faisal, the situation felt less like an innocent attempt at increasing engagement and more like deliberate misdirection. While directing the Senate’s attention away from the dozens of clauses that were either rewritten, added or removed, Martin’s administration also ensured it was as difficult as possible for senators to understand the true nature of what was at stake. 

The election code itself is a nearly 30-page document comprised of section after section of rules and regulations. Newly elected senators were expected to read this code, then read the new one and identify each of the dozens of modified clauses before voting. Even then, the existence of this litigious responsibility was never explicitly communicated, Faisal said.

“The responsibility of us as senators to know the election code by heart is not something that was communicated to us,” Faisal said. “If they had told us that when they introduced it, I’m sure that would have tripped alarm bills in some of our heads.” 

Faisal’s account of the process is a far cry from what former SGA President Cameron Barrett envisioned when he oversaw similar revisions as head of the 55th administration. 

“I sent weekly updates to the whole Senate during the drafting process,” Barrett said. “I mean, otherwise, it’d be pretty burdensome to just go to the Senate with a new document and tell them to figure out how it’s different.” 

Similar in scale but drastically opposed in impact, the updates made to the election code by Barrett pose a stark contrast to those made during Martin’s presidency. A large portion of what was repealed under Martin were changes that Barrett himself made as president in 2018. 

The Cougar explored some of the significant differences between each administration’s approach to Student Government elections. Each section will be accompanied by Barrett’s testimony, both in his capacity as the author of many of the repealed clauses and as an expert on SGA.

Removal of term limits

The SGA election code now allows incumbents to run for office after their term has expired. The term limit has been on the books since at least 2018 and prohibited presidents and vice presidents who had served at least half their terms from running for office again. 

According to Martin, however, this limitation on eligibility for office was unconstitutional.

“When the 55th administration implemented that policy, they were in violation of the SGA Constitution,” Martin said. “So that needed to be changed to reflect the stipulations set out by the constitution.”

The updated regulations, found in article three, section two of the SGA Election Code, removed almost all limitations on candidacy.

“The only requirement for a student to hold or seek elective office is that the student will be in good academic and disciplinary standing, with certain exceptions,” the new SGA Election Code reads. “Students who previously served sanctions for offenses either violent or sexual in nature are not permitted to seek or hold office in the Student Government.”

The logic behind term limits, for Barrett, was simple: It makes for a more even playing field. As someone who had to overcome an incumbent candidate himself, he decided the best way to deal with that advantage would be to remove it entirely. 

“It’s very difficult to account for incumbency advantage in something like SGA,” Barrett said. “I just think it’s philosophically a good thing to give other people a chance to win positions in SGA on an even playing field.”

Increased spending caps

If nothing else, UH students can now claim to host one of the most expensive SGA elections in the Houston area. Prior to the passage of the new SGA Election Code, parties and independent presidential candidates were limited to a maximum of $1,200 for campaign expenditures. Now, the limit has been raised to a staggering $10,000. 

The new limits, found in article six, section one of the SGA Election Code, make for some of the highest SGA campaign finance caps among Texas universities. 

Texas Southern University limits its candidates to a maximum of $750 for individual campaigns and $750 per member for parties. The University of Texas, on the other hand, has an expense limit of just $511. Even private schools such as Baylor University limit their candidates to just $500. 

Martin, who regulary rubs elbows with prominent Houston politicians such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Mayor Sylvester Turner, claimed his intent in raising the limit wasn’t to exclude lower-income students but to allow for more flexibility in campaigning.

“We really wanted to give students the ability to be creative in how they ran their campaign,” Martin said. “Ideally, more campaigning and awareness will generate more engagement.”

According to Barrett, winning an SGA election boils down to one thing: flyers. Specifically, who can hand out more of them. This creates a balancing act when it comes to limits on campaign spending. Candidates need to be allowed enough to compete but not so much that those from wealthy families would have an undue advantage.

An increased cap of $10,000, however, greatly tips the scales in favor of the wealthy, Barrett said. 

“I think it is a real equity concern to be able to spend that much on an election,” Barrett said. “With that money, you could just pay third-party canvassers to hand out flyers. Then you really can just buy the election.”

Voting system overhaul

The most immediately noticeable change, and the only one Martin’s administration was happy to inform its senators of, is the overhaul of the voting system. 

Since 2018, SGA elections have been conducted using a ranked-choice system. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates from whom they would most like elected to the least. 

The new code replaced this system with the pre-2018 method, known as first past the post, is closer to the traditional method of voting used in local, state and federal elections. Instead of ranking candidates, voters will simply choose one candidate per seat to cast a ballot for. This change can be found in article five, section five, clause two of the SGA election code. 

One of the most impactful overhauls Barrett made to the election code in 2018 was the implementation of the ranked-choice voting system. The system was intended to remedy a winner-take-all pattern seen in previous elections conducted using first past the post.

“The issue was that pretty much every year is that the party gets the most votes, ends up sweeping the Senate,” Barrett said. “Even my party only won like a third of the total votes came out with almost two-thirds of the Senate. It felt very disproportionate.”

Barrett’s goal, and the idea behind ranked-choice voting in general, is to create a representative democracy that is careful to take into account the minority. First past the post created a situation where the winning party gets representation, and the losers get none. Ranked-choice voting creates room for a diverse pool of voices and parties. 

Changes to donations, expenditure reporting

In addition to raising spending caps, changes were also made to candidates’ financial reporting obligations. Two key clauses were either heavily edited or removed entirely, which could be a game-changer for candidates with wealthy support networks.

Article six, section two, clause two of the SGA election code governs how candidates are to report the donation of goods, such as stickers and buttons, on their financial disclosure forms. Where previous administrations required candidates to report any materials purchased at “fair market value,” they now only have to report the actual amount they paid. 

Article 12 of the same section was completely stricken from the SGA election code. The now-removed text originally read: 

“All donations, both tangible and intangible, financial or non-financial, must be disclosed on an individual’s or party’s donation list,” the previous code read. “All non-financial contributions/donations to an individual or party must be assessed a fair market value.”

Once again a product of Barrett’s administration, the repealed clauses concerning donations were intended to limit the advantages of wealth in SGA elections. 

“In the interest of keeping the election fair, If you’re born into a wealthy family, it’s important that you try to control your potential structural advantage,” Barrett said. “It can be really hard for people like me who were working in a grocery store and living with their grandma to compete with whose dad owns a print shop and can just donate flyers at absurd prices.”

The increased spending caps and relaxed regulations concerning donations are a point of concern for Barrett. Accounting for outside resources and finding ways to limit their impact on elections is crucial, and Barrett believes the changes he made ultimately had a positive impact on SGA. 

“I think that my administration and the subsequent two administrations were somewhat anomalous because all three of those presidents came from working-class backgrounds,” Barrett said. “That was a direct result of the changes that we implemented in the election code, which made it a lot easier for poor students to actually participate.”

Looking forward

Though the changes took some time to come to light, the impact they will ultimately have on future elections remains to be seen. Nowhere is apathy as grave a danger than in the context of student government. Every year, races are decided by just a tiny fraction of the total student body. 

SGA’s impact is tiny relative to local, state and federal government. Still, it’s important to remember that  SGA, and college in general, are where people come to learn the lessons that will ultimately shape their worldview. This situation is a learning opportunity, one where our collective action will decide the lessons we learn as individuals. 

“Frankly, you could change the election code to make student government a one-party dictatorship,” Barrett said. “Even then, most students would be more focused on getting to class than actually caring about SGA.”

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